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Mateo's 'Covens' is spellbinding

CAMBRIDGE -- At the opening of Jose Mateo's compelling new "Covens," a dance loosely about witch hunters, the elegant Desiree Reese and Cosmin Marculetieu engage in a slow, sensuous duet before a backdrop of flames. The lighting suggests that the flames emanate from a slanted doorway set into sharply angled back walls. Though it's not the most spectacular of lighting effects, the implication is clear: They are dancing by the gates of hell, though hell for one may be salvation for the other.

Set to a rousing, atmospheric score by James MacMillan (Symphony No. 3), "Covens" is one of Mateo's strongest works to date, visually and emotionally. It casts Reese, who has blossomed into one of Mateo's most technically accomplished and expressive dancers, as an innocent. She is lithe and fluid, with a supple back that the strong Marculetieu could seem to mold with his fingertips, and Mateo created some breathtaking lifts for the two of them.

As the leader of "the others" (it wasn't clear if they were the hunters or the hunted), Sybil Watkins was all power. A striking presence of steely vigor, she prowled the stage like a cat . Mateo created some vivid choreography for the corps, especially the men, but the ensemble work in Thursday's world premiere was quite ragged.

"Covens" was the highlight of the fifth and final entry in the "Twenty Years by Mateo" series celebrating the 20th anniversary of the scrappy little company. It's no mean feat to survive, much less flourish, in the shadow of the behemoth Boston Ballet. But Jose Mateo's Ballet Theatre has done so with remarkable consistency over the years, fueled by Mateo's choreography in a style he calls "New Classicism." It is the only company in New England devoted to the repertory -- more than 80 ballets -- of a single resident choreographer.

The retrospective capably showcases Mateo's range. The concert's opener was one of his oldest and most traditionally classical works, "Mozart Concerto" (1991). A model of formal clarity for 16 dancers, it unfurls in eye-catching lines and blocks that coalesce and dissolve. It is an excellent vehicle for the gracious, regal Ashley Hubbard , cast as a lonely queen surrounded by a busy court. It also offers nice solos for Reese, Watkins, and the charismatic Temple Carroll . The corps displayed solid training and facility, but in music as structurally transparent as Mozart, disparities in timing and placement tended to be glaring.

With its distinctly modern edge of sharp angles and sinewy curves, "Dark Profiles" was an excellent contrast. Set to Beethoven's wild and thorny "Grosse Fuge in B Flat," it marked the welcome return of Ballet Theatre veteran Meg Flaherty Griffith after the birth of her daughter last November. The company's senior dancer, she has a seasoned technical facility complemented by a mature, nuanced expressivity. Though his footwork was a little mushy, Sean Gunther danced with impressive commitment and dynamic flair, his solos bolstered by razor-sharp scissor kicks and buoyant leaps.

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