"Elevate" is the title of St. Paul City Ballet's Cowles Center debut, and on Friday night there were moments when the dancing reached a higher plane. Sometimes it was earthbound, not quite achieving liftoff. But one founding member soared whenever he took the stage: 2012 Sage Award-winner Andrew Lester.

As the lead in "L'Après-midi d'un Faune," Lester acquits himself admirably in Phillip Carman's take on the Vaslav Nijinsky creation premiered by the Ballets Russes in 1912 to great controversy for its overt sexuality. Pent-up desire defines the work set to Claude Debussy's pastoral music, but it is also unique for imagery seemingly lifted from ancient two-dimensional bas-relief. To improve on his interpretation, Lester could draw out his poses further to underscore the deliberate primal tension within the choreography.

Lester is central to Allison Doughty Marquesen's well-crafted "A Montana Memoir," another piece that delves into emotional agitation, specifically the welcome release from depression to elation. Marquesen and Michelle Ludwig join Lester in the lead roles, and all dance with a combination of passion, freedom and tenderness.

"Bolero," choreographed by Gregory Drotar and Helena Baron with crisp precision, draws upon flamenco-based movement to complement Maurice Ravel's famed score. Ted Sothern performs with sleek confidence as a female cast swirls around him. There is in-your-face sensual drama to this work, perhaps inspired by Drotar's early background as a dancer with Bob Fosse.

There are missteps. While "La Vivandierè" features a light-as-air Laura Greenwell, the rest of the cast struggles with the complex work staged by Marquesen with coaching by Anna Maria Homes after the choreography of Arthur Saint-Léon and Fanny Cerrito. The classical piece didn't mesh with the more forward-looking program (even "L'Après-midi" was a groundbreaking work in its time). And Sothern's "Not an Étude" is a structurally awkward, rather dated work that unfolds with fits and starts, never quite gathering momentum.

An extra treat Friday was the world premiere of "Poised" (it will not be seen in Sunday's show). Choreographed by guest artist Joseph Morrissey and danced by American Ballet Theatre soloists Yuriko Kajiya and Jared Matthews, the work lives up to its name. Both performers use their bodies like sharp pencils to draw lines efficiently through space. This fast-moving and expertly wrought effort gives hope for ballet's evolution into the 21st century.

Caroline Palmer writes about dance.