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BALLET REVIEW : Joffrey's 'Romeo': A Valiant Sketch

May 21, 1990|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC/DANCE CRITIC

Pity the poor dancers. Day after day, they subject their beautiful, fragile bodies to strains worthy of a Kirk Gibson. But they hardly command Gibsonesque salaries, and their careers are painfully short.

Pity especially the dancers of the Joffrey Ballet. They are universally celebrated for their youth, their high spirits, their virtuosity and their versatility. Still, even in the best of times, they are overworked and underpaid.

The relatively small ensemble performs a vast, eclectic, demanding repertory, often changing styles along with costumes three and four times a night. The stage hands and the orchestra players tend to earn more than the protagonists on the stage. For some time this season, the dancers couldn't even collect their modest \o7 per diem\f7 allowances.

In addition to the normal rigors of the road, the Joffrey roster must contend these days with administrative chaos. The business is in disarray. No one can be quite sure who is running the company, with what, and how. To put it gently, the future is clouded.

And yet, as Confucius no doubt said, the show goes on.

It went on Friday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with a brave and splashy performance of John Cranko's "Romeo and Juliet," not seen here since 1987. This sprawling ballet--with its realistic narrative, emotional sweep and heroic scale--has always stretched the Joffrey resources. Under present conditions, it demands more than the beleaguered dancers should be able to give.

No matter. They give anyway.

They dance as if lives were at stake. They throw themselves at the challenge at foot with reckless abandon. One has to admire their dedication and their dauntless vitality.

If pressed, one also has to admit that their "Romeo"--at least as performed on the first night of the local run--seemed more a sketch than a realization. Cranko's feverish outlines, created for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1962, sometimes got smudged. Shakespeare's eternal poetry sometimes turned prosaic.

The duties of the star-cross'd lovers were entrusted to a pair of conscientious, amiable kids from California. Both danced well yet conveyed little.

Douglas Martin (of San Jose) introduced a dark, handsome, long-legged Romeo with a blank face, a fine line and a generalized sense of duty. Jodie Gates (of Sacramento) introduced a fleet and robust Juliet who occasionally confused mugging with acting.

With this Capulet and Montague, one longed in vain for a sense of mutual magnetism. One searched in vain for the expressive nuances that add pathos to competence.

Edward Stierle flew with impish glee through the sassy pyrotechnics of Mercutio, but resembled a cute little boy sent in to do a man's job. Carl Corry exuded all-purpose good-guy bravado as Benvolio, while Tyler Walters simulated all-purpose macho malevolence as Tybalt. The most stylish contribution came from Charlene Gehm, whose towering dignity nearly ennobled the wrenching hysteria of Lady Capulet.

In general, the masses proved more compelling than the individuals. The crowd scenes bustled. The sword fights bristled. The courtly dances looked as suave as one has a right to expect when the participants are all so infernally youthful.

Jurgen Rose's lavish decors wear well. At least one observer continues to be confounded, however, by the 14th-Century elevator that transports Juliet from bridge to basement to bier in the final scene.

Allan Lewis and the locally recruited orchestra found much gusto, and not so much dramatic tension, in Prokofiev's miraculous score. In that respect, the musicians complemented the dancers.

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