The late ballet master John Taras choreographed his most enduring work, “Designs With Strings,” in 1948, a time when the mysteries of pre-war Surrealism were on the verge of ceding to Neo-classicism. A transitional work, “Designs with Strings” — which opened New Jersey Ballet’s elegant “Gems of the Ballet” program at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, Nov. 11 — partakes of both these trends.
Composed of classroom steps arranged in pleasing symmetries, Taras’ piece nonetheless has shadowy lighting that gives it an extra, psychological dimension. A grouping of four women and two men stand frozen against a violet background as the piece opens — remember that pose — but after a series of apparently plotless episodes the façade of this ballet cracks open to reveal an underlying, personal drama. One of the women, Christina Theryoung, unexpectedly confesses to romantic disappointment and another woman briefly consoles her before the dancers return to their opening stance.
Set to an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Trio in A, this moody little piece evokes George Balanchine’s work too directly — especially in its overuse of winding chains that sometimes nearly choke the dancers — to qualify as a masterpiece in its own right. But its clean lines and virtuosic challenges, flavored with a soupçon of chagrin, still make it a “gem.” New Jersey Ballet gave it a staunch, unfussy performance with Catherine Whiting a brisk standout.
Ali Pourfarrokh’s “Facets” is similarly grounded in the ballet classroom, but this choreographer’s more contemporary approach to a Mahler score places everything within a framework, contrasting moments when three color-coded couples face the audience head-on with other moments when dancers arrange themselves in profile or on the diagonal. This stark directionality, in turn, maximizes the effect of still other moments when the ballet’s rigorous structure seems to melt with emotion, with the women letting go of their partners’ hands and fainting or slipping oh-so-softly around their sides.
“Facets” has a sensual quality that can be gentle or powerful — for instance, in a moment when Mari Sugawa runs and throws herself at Leonid Flegmatov, curling her body rapidly against his chest. Pourfarrokh also gives Sugawa and Flegmatov, the most prominent couple, a series of dazzling lifts; Sugawa is wraithlike and seemingly able to dissolve.
After intermission, this balanced yet thoroughly classical program featured a revival of the late George Tomal’s duet “Marietta’s Song,” a musically sensitive treatment of an aria by Korngold that showcased two lovers in the throes: Flegmatov and the long-limbed Ilse Kapteyn.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Flegmatov makes an emphatic entrance, while Kapteyn slinks in quietly with her head covered. After this unconventional opening, however, the dancing follows the music’s lead, with Kapteyn making a descent from pointe as soft and velvety as the singer’s voice, or spearing the air with one leg to mark a high note. Tomal luxuriates in the aria’s languorous tempo, challenging the dancers to sustain or gradually develop a movement, most spectacularly in an upside-down lift where one of Kapteyn’s feet grazes her other leg as she slowly extends the foot to complete the pose.
Bringing this ballet-lovers’ evening to a happy conclusion, New Jersey Ballet presented the Grand Pas from Marius Petipa’s “Paquita,” an extravagant showcase introduced by cadres of tutu-clad women, skipping and drawing our attention with a saucy “here-I-am” gesture that leads naturally to the appearance of the next group. The younger members of this corps could use more rehearsal, but they have style snapping elegantly into place as they frame the performance of Risa Mochizuki and Albert Davydov in the leading roles.
Mochizuki is a delight, precise and stylish with particular attention to the movements of her satin-covered feet, running daintily or forming a sharp crescent as she draws them up from the floor. Davydov, for his part, has a suave movement quality that doesn’t leave him even when performing tours de force. Also notable were Nahoko Nakamoto, Yuuki Yamamoto and Catherine Whiting in the pas de trois.
New Jersey Ballet’s appearances throughout the rest of this year will be devoted to “The Nutcracker”: Nov. 26 at the Levoy Theatre in Millville; Dec. 2-3 at BergenPAC in Englewood; and Dec. 8-10, 15-17 and 22-24 at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown. Visit njballet.org.