“Dark Elegies” is a ballet about a village lamenting the deaths of its children. The dancers wear peasant clothes of muted browns and blues. The women’s heads are covered with wraps. The men look downward. In the background is a disorienting pictorial representation of a hamlet, the kind Edvard Munch might have painted on a bad day.
A few minutes into this dirge, it’s not unimaginable that you, too, might feel depressed. Not to mention cheated. Ballet isn’t supposed to be about tragedy — unless, of course, it’s about star-crossed lovers or involves a swan. Ballet is supposed to be dreamy and elevating.
Yet France’s Ballet du Capitole de Toulouse chose “Dark Elegies” as its centerpiece for an evening of dance Friday at the Maine Center for the Arts. Choreographed by Anthony Tudor in the late 1930s, this ballet combines with music by the cheery Gustav Mahler for an unabashed cry of pain.
You want to hate this dreary plot, but the Toulouse dancers with their hands slicing into the air, arms lifted in prayer and communal huddles of silent moaning wouldn’t let you. Even in its misery, “Dark Elegies” had a charm to it. That comes from capable dancers who were relentlessly — but never sloppily — poignant in telling a story that’s neither romantic nor uplifting.
It was a courageous choice by the artistic staff of Nicolas Joel and Nannette Glushak, and it was a successful choice. Their dance company has the serious skill to confidently present a ballet of such tricky thematics, and the technical finesse to turn it into something lovely — even if it is a downer.
That said, thank goodness the program also consisted of two works by George Balanchine. “Rubies,” set to Igor Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, was a sassy, sexy piece in which the corps established itself as formidably spunky. Principal dancers Magali Guerry and Minh Pham worked a pas de deux to its ultimate extensions and delight. Guerry was the spitfire here with a spryness that, indeed, did make the woes of the world disappear.
Soloist Paola Pagano, an alluringly tall and thick dancer, had a style that was both royal and sensual. She had the stage presence of a queen and the grace of a lion. The combination was boldly and refreshingly rare.
The final piece on the program was Balanchine’s “Raymonda Variations,” with fanciful music by Russian composer Alexander Glazounov. This was pink, ambrosial ballet with leapy men and whirling women. Every little girl who ever stared lovingly at a plastic ballerina twirling in a music box would recognize all the caprice and mirth of this piece.
And the Ballet du Capitole confirmed its know-how during this energetic collection of divertissements. Although the various soloists each added to the twinkle of this performance, Evelyn Spagnol and Juan Polo danced with expert achievement. Every refined turn had the spontaneity of a teen-ager and the studiedness of a professor. In both their pas de deux and their solo performances, Spagnol and Polo blazed as the stars of this troupe.
The ensemble work of the Ballet du Capitole de Toulouse had astounding evenness, which is a testament to the technique and artistic vision of the directors. That’s not to say it is the best ballet company to pass through the hall, but it had real talent, integrity and solidity, a combination which made the evening both potent and vibrant.