Kennet Oberly’s choreography for Mozart’s Requiem opened with a single dancer, Rachel Willis, entering in silence and kneeling with head bowed.

As the majestic music began, 11 other dancers entered in lines, and formed a wedge with Willis at its point.

Pulled in and out of the group by unseen forces, the dancers portrayed struggle with shaking hands and physical tension, while Willis floated and reached out, evoking both supplication and hope.

A large and enthusiastic audience, having braved torrential rains to attend the show at the Merrill Auditorium on Tuesday, was amply rewarded by a glorious, deeply moving performance by Portland Ballet Company and the Choral Art Society with a quartet of guest soloists from the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

Oberly, a guest freelance choreographer, could have gone in many directions with the Requiem, and he avoided many potential pitfalls. He did not choose to create his own story line, overriding the clearly set story of the piece (a requiem is a funeral Mass). Nor did he try to interpret that story line itself: no funeral was acted out, and few of the words of the chorus were literally envisioned on stage. In the opposite direction, he didn’t place bland, kaleidoscopic patterns as an abstract illustration of the chorus and orchestra.

Instead, he combined a non-specific spiritual interpretation of this sacred piece with a purely musical response to its structural and emotional nuances. His approach was equally respectful, humble and beautifully authoritative, with unerringly sensitive musicality and gentle emotion. The choreography was strikingly rich, with shades of so many sources (notably Balanchine and Tharp, with hints of the Grecian shapes of early modern dance and the delicacy of historical dance — perhaps the minuet, Mozart’s own favorite) that, ultimately, it had its own unique style and purity.

The movement echoed the music subtly. When the quartet sang, a quartet danced, with quickly changing interlocks as the singers’ voices intertwined. When the chorus and instruments performed in counterpoint, Oberly wove together contrasting movement from different dancers just as Mozart placed majestic declaration over rippling glissando. The overall shape of the composition honored the recurrent themes of the music and the requiem Mass’ structure.

The spiritual message of the Requiem was evoked with equal subtlety. In the “Dies irae” (day of anger) passage of the Sequentia, there were gestures and poses of anguish, and the movement volume rose in leaps, rolls and stamped feet. As the music progressed to its conclusion in the Communio, the sweeping movements of previous passages showed increasing lightness, and the dancers’ faces seemed to glow as the chorus sang about eternal light.

Perhaps it goes without saying, considering the superb direction of Robert Russell, that the chorus and orchestra performed the Requiem with outstanding skill and precise interpretation. The choral soloists — soprano Ashley Emerson, mezzo-soprano Teresa Herold, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson and baritone Aaron Engebreth — were strong and well balanced. Emerson’s and Herold’s voices were complementary in tone, so that their brief duets had the quality of a single voice singing two parts. As a quartet, the four voices had striking depth.

The chorus performed beautifully, with excellent coordination despite being split onto the two sides of the stage to accommodate the dancing. The small orchestra was in similar form.

Trombonist Nickolas Orovich’s solo in the “Tuba mirum” passage of the Sequentia was haunting and musically true. With the alto and bass trombones, he achieved a good balance with their corresponding vocal parts throughout Mozart’s signature trombone-voice doubling.

The Requiem is not a vehicle for star turns, and the singers’ obvious virtuosity (most noticeably Emerson, of the Metropolitan Opera) was the basis for their contribution to the texture of the whole, not an opportunity to highlight an individual talent.

Similarly, individual dancers were featured but in a manner complementary to the chorus of dancers.

Willis, who is especially adept at interpreting contemporary movement with emotional investment, was both strong and ethereal in her brief solos and recurring quartet with Megan Buckley, Andrea Lucas and Morgan Sanborn. In the Lacrimosa, Hannah Wallace showed outstanding control, dramatic depth and smooth shifts of tempo and form.

As a group, these dancers have never performed with greater artistry and expertise, and they seemed genuinely swept away in the musical moment. Oberly, who created the work on these individual dancers, brought out their best (with important assistance from Nell Shipman, the PBC principal dancer who directed rehearsals from Oberly’s initial choreography to his return last week).

What is possibly most remarkable about Tuesday’s magnificent performance is that the dancers, chorus and orchestra were brought all together for only one day of joint rehearsals. Russell’s and Oberly’s visions of the piece — and the performers’ versatility and adaptability — made the artistic conversation appear completely natural. It is strongly to be hoped that they will repeat this performance in the future.

Jennifer Brewer is a freelance writer, teacher, musician and dancer who lives in Saco.

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