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Star-cross'd Casting : Overambitious 'Romeo' Opens Joffrey Season

January 18, 1985|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music/Dance Critic

John Cranko's production of "Romeo and Juliet," first performed at La Scala in 1958 and definitively revised for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1962, represents a complex challenge for any company.

It is a vital fusion of Shakespearean drama and balletic stylization, of lyrical indulgence and dramatic passion, of classical ritual and modern license.

Inspired to a considerable degree by the historic creation of Leonid Lavrovsky at the mighty Bolshoi in 1940, it requires a huge cast of seasoned dancing actors, a sophisticated scenic apparatus, a big orchestra and, above all, sensitivity to the extrovert traditions of the full-length narrative ballet.

The theatrical sweep of Cranko's "Romeo" may not be as elaborate as that of the similar Kenneth MacMillan version, which made history at the Royal Ballet in 1963--and which American Ballet Theatre will bring to Shrine Auditorium in March. Still, the Cranko version is a wonderful, large-scale extravaganza that demands large-scale forces, large-scale personalities and large-scale commitments.

There's the rub.

The Joffrey Ballet, which opened its much-vaunted season at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Wednesday, is a terrific little company. It is a company that brims with bright promise and with young, eager bodies, a company proud of an eclectic repertory that favors the risks of adventure over the safety of the so-called standard repertory, a company that specializes in short ensemble pieces rather than long star vehicles, a company that is accustomed to the triumphant substitution of energy for finesse.

It also is a company stretched to its limits, and beyond, by this "Romeo."

Joffrey populates Shakespeare's Verona with nice American kids. They work diligently. They look good. They dance well if not terribly well. They have blank faces and pallid personalities. They play characters but they lack character.

The problem involves everyone, from walk-on to protagonist. When the Stuttgart company performed "Romeo" here in 1969 and 1971, a marvelous old character dancer named Hella Heim brought warmth and poetry to the waddlings of the Nurse; a formidable, mature dancer named Ruth Pappendick validated the hysteria of Lady Capulet; a compelling unknown named Jiri Kylian once personified menace as Tybalt, and an interesting young man called John Neumeier originally commanded attention in the fleeting stances of Paris. And these were just the minor roles.

In Joffrey's brave yet terminally shallow "Romeo," which employs 41 lightfooted dancers as well as 32 supernumeraries, nearly everyone looks like a refugee from the corps, at worst; like a recent graduate from the corps, at best. The three Harlots--the prudish program calls them Gypsies--typify the problem. They should be lusty wenches. Here they are fresh and wholesome enough to make any client an instant child molester.

None of this would matter too much if Joffrey at least had at his disposal a pair of overwhelming dramatic dancers to portray the star-cross'd lovers. The couple on display Wednesday, alas, turned out to be emphatically underwhelming.

James Canfield introduced a handsome, earnest, proper Romeo who could just as well be Benvolio or the boy next door. His emotional range as an actor proved as muted as his bravura as a dancer.

Patricia Miller as Juliet reduced the ecstasies and agonies of one of the great tragic heroines to the brittle stances of a dancing doll. One cannot help but wonder, incidentally, why Joffrey didn't entrust the role to his senior ballerina, Denise Jackson. Although she may be a bit older than Miller, she is still a child compared to such illustrious Juliets as Margot Fonteyn and Galina Ulanova.

Youth is sometimes wasted on the young.

The most striking portrayals-- and these wouldn't seem all that striking in another context--were Luis Perez's dapper Mercutio, Jerel Hilding's angry Tybalt and Charlene Gehm's willowy Lady Capulet. Even Gehm could not make sense, however, of the infamous exit in Act II which requires the distraught Lady to tear her clothes, mount Tybalt's bier and ride offstage atop her nephew's corpse.

The most satisfying impulses in this "Romeo" probably emanated from the pit where Allan Lewis and an ad-hoc orchestra brought rare fervor and authority to the truncated edition of Prokofiev's wondrous score.

Cranko would, no doubt, have adjusted his ballet to accommodate the strengths and weaknesses of this company, were he alive. In his place, the faithful Georgette Tsinguirides imposed the rigors of the Stuttgart model as if it were an elegant straitjacket.

The Stuttgart aura was sustained further by the original designs of Juergen Rose: lavish period costumes and an odd, sparse unit-set that places Juliet's balcony on a bridge and Friar Laurence's cell in an exotic jungle. The scenery also requires poor Juliet to be lowered into her crypt via picturesque, utterly illogical ropes.

Although one had assumed that Joffrey intends to keep the production in the active repertory--it can only get better--the decors have been borrowed from Vienna. No doubt, they must be returned before too long.

In the meantime, the company probably has a solid box-office attraction on its hands. The public still likes nothing so much as a story ballet. And no matter what this "Romeo" may do for Shakespeare and for Cranko, it does provide useful training for the dancers.

Stretching, they say, is good for you.

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