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Dance perfects Halloween choreography

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Dance perfects Halloween choreography
Jose Mateo’s “Assault on the Senses” is at the Sanctuary Theatre in Harvard Square. (Photo: Gary Sloan)

Jose Mateo’s “Assault on the Senses,” running through Oct. 29 at the Sanctuary Theatre in Harvard Square, provides an eerie look at a homogenous otherworld that feels alarmingly close to our own. The performance features three vignettes, each with an underlying feeling of “us vs. them.”

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The show opens with “Isle of the Dead,” a 1993 symphonic poem written by Sergei Rachmaninoff and inspired by the Arnold Brocklin painting of the same name. At once beautiful and disturbing, the choreography moves from a touching love story to a threatening cult with disturbing speed.

Rachmaninoff’s music is meant to mimic the rhythm of oars rowing out to the Isle of the Dead. Similarly, the dancers who move together as one body imitate death itself, the imminent fate of humanity beckoning to the two lovers. The power of the Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre company can be seen in its minimalism. With no traditional narrative or gaudy costumes to cling to, the success of the performance comes from skill alone.

Act two, “Covens,” set to the score by James MacMillan, pays homage to the Scotland witch trials of the 16th century. The subject matter hits close to home here in Massachusetts and seasonally relevant. But the idea of the masses rising up against the perceived “other” parallels our polarized national political climate as well.

“Covens” is visually stunning. In several moments, one dancer lifts another and carries her through the crowd in a sacrificial gesture. The stark angles of the lifted dancer’s body against the deep purple backdrop look like a twisted modernist painting.

The final vignette, “Fearless Symmetries,” brings eeriness of a different kind. The music is high-energy and the choreography has an almost retro, jazz-age feel. The dancers wear big, forced smiles and bounce around the stage with false bravado. The tension runs so high it feels as though the dancers might pop from their incessant stepping. Near the end, the piece takes a brooding, meditative turn.

The show, like all of the company’s Sanctuary Theatre performances, is presented cabaret-style. The intimate stage setting makes the dancers’ impact all the more powerful. They’re on our level, in our world, and that makes the problems they’re dealing with much closer to our own reality.

“Assault on the Senses” combines the best of all worlds for a Halloween-time show. It has the creepiness we crave in the month of October, the beauty and precision of an impeccable dance troupe and the self-reflective ending of a much-needed societal mirror.