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BALLET REVIEW : Gregory Gets Her Chance to Dance Juliet

Times Music/Dance Critic

Every actor wants to play Hamlet. Every tenor wants to sing Otello. Every ballerina wants to dance Juliet.

Until recently, Cynthia Gregory had been deprived of her chance to portray the tragic, instantly adorable Veronese maiden. Fate and physique invariably had typecast her in more robust, more heroic challenges.

American Ballet Theatre, her alma mater, had reserved the delicate plight of Shakespeare’s star-cross’d lover for daintier dancers. No matter. What isn’t possible in New York or Los Angeles can sometimes be realized in Cleveland or San Jose.

It just so happens that the ambitious Cleveland Ballet--which has occupied a part-time base in the Silicon Valley since 1985--is run by Dennis Nahat. A former comic-caractere specialist par excellence at ABT, he has bestowed upon his erstwhile colleague the rank and privilege of Permanent Guest Artist. He also has mounted a fancy, sprawling, $540,000 production of “Romeo and Juliet.”

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The twain met Tuesday night at the Center for the Performing Arts. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a happy meeting.

At this stage of her career, Gregory has to be a rather knowing Juliet. That, per se, need not be a problem. Maturity hindered no illusions with Ulanova, Fonteyn and Makarova, and these ballerinas were older than Gregory when they undertook the role.

The real problem involves image and manner. Gregory is simply too strong, too healthy, too solid, too forceful to convey dewy vulnerability without strain. Fragility wasn’t her forte as Giselle or Swanilda or the Sylphide. It certainly isn’t her forte here.

Complicating matters, she was surrounded in San Jose by an essentially eager, emphatically youthful, rather diminutive ensemble that made her look stubbornly maternal. Even though she wasn’t in top form on this occasion (recent motherhood may have something to do with that), she danced with her customary sweep, glamour and grandeur. She made a conscientious effort to convey the joys of awakening love and the agonies of fateful deprivation. Still, she remained cool, tough and sophisticated in spite of her best efforts.

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Nahat helped her by casting Peter DiBonaventura as Romeo. Slender, ultra-serious and touchingly deferential, he actually towered above her while conveying a nice aura of generalized devotion.

Nahat didn’t help anyone, however, with his choreographic scheme, if it can be called that. With many borrowings from MacMillan and a few from Cranko, he turned the ballet into a fussy mime extravaganza. Decorative verismo detail continually denied the thrust of the music. Worse, it got in the way of expansive dancing.

There was much cliche here and much busywork. There wasn’t much definition of mood or projection of poetry.

Abetted by David Guthrie’s ponderous window-dressing designs, Nahat concentrated on pretty surfaces. He offered storytelling for its own sake. He lost passion in the process, not to mention Renaissance Italy. He also failed to persuade his frantic young charges to observe such basic distinctions as age and class.

Adding personal indulgence to stylistic injury, he appropriated the role of Mercutio for a clownish star turn. Ham triumphed.

Prokofiev’s great ballet was best served in the pit, even though Nahat had ventured a few odd interpolations and rearrangements. Stanley Sussman conducted with poise and ardor, as needed, and the orchestra played brilliantly for him.

The orchestra, not incidentally, was the San Jose Symphony. Every other element in the ill-fated production had been imported from Ohio.


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