Times Music/Dance Critic

No sense beating about the tomb. Others may be younger, tinier, more fragile. Others may float up the steps in the balcony scene quicker. Others may be more adept at fluttering their lashes, oozing pre-fabricated sweetness and whispering en pointe. Others may offer more consistent demonstrations of cool technical perfection.

But the others, poor things, are just dancers. Natalia Makarova is Juliet.

Friday night at Shrine Auditorium, in her only full-length performance of the American Ballet Theatre season, Makarova gave Kenneth MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet" the compelling central impulses the work demands, and which had been so painfully lacking at the Wednesday opening. She painted the character boldly, in rich primary colors accented with a myriad subtle touches of light and shade. Meek pastels are not for her.

She swept through the tragedy with passion bordering on desperation, with wildly original ideas validating a cumulative series of aching climaxes. She created a poignant dance portrait in this most narrative of narrative ballets, not just with her still-lithe, perfectly proportioned, impeccably schooled body, but also with her huge, sad eyes; with the droop of a smile that had flashed radiant happiness only a second earlier, with the eager tilt of her patrician neck or with the generosity of an all-embracing swoon.

It is easy to pick out the nuances that make Makarova's Juliet an expressive paragon from the outset: the playful, mercurial dash from the wings that propels her to the Nurse's side at her entrance; the sudden expression of erotic wonder that illuminates her features at the end of the scene, when her hands touch her breasts in the discovery of impending womanhood; the air of distraction with which she strums the obligatory mandolin at the ball; the oblivious gaze with which she mesmerizes Romeo; the ecstasy with which she arches her back on the balcony while gazing at the moon in amorous reverie. . . .

As the inevitable tragedy of her predicament becomes apparent, however, this Juliet's pathos takes on heroic intensity. After her night of feverish bliss with Romeo, she shudders at the innocent touch of Paris, begs with futile ardor for her father's understanding, virtually grows in stature as she rises from her pensive bed as if called in a holy mission to deny her doom.

When she runs to Friar Laurence, her cape streaming in the air behind her, time and breath stop. When she returns to her boudoir, her expression blank with pain, she is, in a sense, already dead.When she contemplates her choices, she teeters palpably between abject terror and noble resolve.

When she discovers Romeo's corpse, she tries hysterically to breathe life back into it, then imposes upon herself an ethereal, slow-motion Liebestod . She crawls agonizingly to the bier and ascends it. Half her torso bends backward over the catafalque--dangerously, impossibly--as her head flops downward at a grotesque angle, her blond hair caressing the cold floor as her slender arm reaches out to grasp the hand of her lover.

It is shattering.

A Juliet like Makarova deserves a Romeo like Anthony Dowell or Mikhail Baryshnikov. Kevin McKenzie, who inherited the awesome duties Friday, brought remarkable taste, intelligence and refinement to the challenge. He conveyed gentle sympathy throughout. He danced cleanly and handsomely. He partnered Makarova with strength and consideration. Nevertheless, through no real fault of his own, he remained a bland counterforce.

Otherwise, the performance, fervently conducted by Alan Barker, fluctuated from prose to poetry. Gil Boggs introduced a Mercutio too boyish to convey much insinuating swagger. John Turjoman, the temperamental Benvolio, showed signs of being an incipient Mercutio, and John Meehan, the handsome Paris, looked like a Romeo-to-be. Clark Tippet stalked his prey with a sketchy aura of malevolence as Tybalt (with Ron Tice, the erstwhile Tybalt, demoted to the duties of an anonymous henchman). Georgina Parkinson again attended stylishly to the exaggerated hysterics of the grieving Lady Capulet.

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