The Portland Ballet went to hell with its latest production – and the journey provided a sophisticated evening of dance for a rapt audience.

The venerable company, classically focused but not averse to being a bit adventurous, presented the first performance in a brief, two-day premiere run of Director/Choreographer Nell Shipman’s “Persephone & Hades” on Friday night at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center.

The ancient Greek myth of Persephone has long provided subject matter for artistic expressions in literature, music and dance. The myth’s relevance to environmental concerns has especially come to the fore recently. But Shipman’s adaptation feels a bit more personal.

Young Persephone, daughter of the gods Zeus and Demeter, wanders away from her companions and is scooped up by Hades and taken to his world below. As the roughly 90-minute ballet progresses, she struggles but gradually learns to like the freedom and power she gains there. Meanwhile, her despondent mother, after being pointed in the right direction by Helios, seeks to bring her back. The resulting conflict and compromise make for an origin story for the seasons of the year while also confirming the wisdom of appropriately reacting to adversity.

Grace Koury danced the lead female role and was able to convey Persephone’s evolution from delicate maiden to mature woman willing to embrace a new identity alongside Hades. Her dancing gained appropriate strength as her character found her way toward independence.

Daniel Rudenberg’s role as Hades found the dancer vacillating between being master of his domain and just a love-sick puppy. Most of the menace in the work came from his followers, who transformed from elegant ballerinas to slinking creatures as the action required. But there were also some moments in Rudenberg’s partnering with Koury when the pair achieved a striking, sculpted intimacy.

The other end of the mother-daughter dynamic essential to this work was found in the role of Demeter, danced by an inspired Erica Diesl. The anguish and despair she enacted through an expressive grace, on the brink of physical collapse, was extraordinary. Both her and her daughter’s struggles were convincingly shown to be of the inner variety. But Diesl made her character’s desperation palpable.

Jackson Gormley as Helios in the Portland Ballet production of “Persephone & Hades” Chris Ogden photo

Jackson Gormley took the role of Helios. He made his energetic presence felt both literally as a performer and figuratively as his character lights the way toward the resolution of the myth.

The wide Westbrook stage was set for the two levels visited in the play. Metal scaffolding held the sunlit world aloft while a long ramp afforded travel to and from the teeming mysteries of the stage-level underworld. The lighting by Jamie Grant added color to a story that is about more than simply darkness and light. And the costumes by Amy Baxter suggested ancient images of the gods. The recorded music from Verdi’s Requiem served to embed the piece in a soaring Romanticism of the sort often found within classic ballet.

This ambitious and sometimes quite moving work deserves a return engagement at some point in the Portland Ballet’s promising future.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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