Star-cross'd casting kept a weekend of American Ballet Theatre "Romeo and Juliet" performances in Costa Mesa only fitfully satisfying.
Now familiar from stage, screen and television, Kenneth MacMillan's 1965 dance drama earned its reputation through inspired collaborations--initially, of course, between Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, but also Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable, for whom the ballet was choreographed. Ballet Theatre, however, seems to assume that Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio are interchangeable roles--and that audiences somehow don't notice when the the lovers are cast from cynical (or is it desperate?) expediency.
Certainly, pairing Julio Bocca with Alessandra Ferriq on Friday was pretty much the same as marrying Juliet off to Paris. Bocca is a brilliant virtuoso but scarcely ideal for Romeo either in physical proportions, partnering ability or acting skill. In contrast, Ferri is one of the great Juliets of our time, a dancing-actress of astonishing originality who creates a specific reality in each performance--one that Bocca's bland obviousness continually contradicted.
When this Juliet danced, it was always a declaration to her Romeo--while he invariably remained absorbed in showing off feats to the audience. They even clashed in death: Bocca's stylized throes and soft, slow, self-protective fall to the floor versus Ferri's wild explosion of suicidal despair.
The Saturday matinee leads proved no more compatible--but they, at least, were thrown together by happenstance. Scheduled to dance with other partners, Leslie Browne and Wes Chapman found themselves cast opposite one another in this ballet for the first time because of an injury to Browne's designated Romeo (Ricardo Bustamante).
They responded like pros, of course. Chapman partnered conscientiously, soloed capably (though some of the bravura looked underpowered) and showed promise of developing a notably sweet and refined characterization: Romeo as dream-prince. On this occasion, Browne muted her distinctively sophisticated and contemporary interpretation (very post-Seymour) but danced faultlessly.
On Saturday night, Kevin McKenzie made a mature, almost world-weary Romeo renewed by the virginal innocence of Amanda McKerrow's Juliet--more like Albrecht and Giselle, perhaps, than these Montague and Capulet lovers, but clearly the most potent combination of the weekend.
Although a strained actor, McKenzie had strength and generosity as a partner that always made a powerful statement on its own terms--and it allowed McKerrow maximum daring in the great duets. Unlike Ferri and Browne, she didn't show Juliet growing wiser or deeper from adversity: She died the same child we'd seen playing with a doll. But in her purity of belief and vulnerability, she broke your heart.
Beyond showcasing its tragic lovers, MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet" represents a spectacular company vehicle and these first Orange County performances boasted a number of high-profile portrayals.
Among the most artful: Georgina Parkinson's alternately steely and volcanic Lady Capulet (Friday and Saturday nights), Victor Barbee's complex, formidable Tybalt (Friday), Alexander Minz's cerebral Friar Laurence (Friday and Saturday evening) and Kathleen Moore's grandmotherly Nurse (Friday and the Saturday matinee).
Guillaume Graffin danced unevenly in his first performance as Benvolio (Friday)--but in looks and temperament this is clearly a born Romeo paying his dues. As Mercutio, both Johan Renvall (Friday and Saturday afternoon) and John Gardner (Saturday evening) settled for lightweight, boyish interpretations put over with sharply honed technique. Michael Owen made a conventionally brutish Tybalt (Saturday afternoon) and Kevin O'Day (Saturday night) turned the character into Brandoesque trade, obviously waiting around Verona for someone to invent the motorcycle.
Jack Everly and Charles Barker alternated as conductor in the three performances. Sign of progress: The Mandolin Dance solo in Act II is no longer Mercutio's property but belongs, as MacMillan originally intended, to a divertissement dancer (Robert Wallace at the first two performances, then Keith Roberts). It makes so much more sense that way.