Wherefore Art Thou 'Romeo'?

TIMES MUSIC/DANCE CRITIC

The program at Shrine Auditorium- if one happened to be lucky enough to get one--heralded the Bolshoi version of "Romeo and Juliet." It was difficult to tell the ballet, and the players, without a program.

This clearly was not the "Romeo" we know and/or love.

It wasn't John Cranko's romantic melodrama, as performed by the Stuttgart Ballet and the Joffrey. It wasn't Kenneth MacMillan's flamboyant tragedy, as performed by the Royal Ballet or American Ballet Theatre. It wasn't the elegant reduction created by Frederick Ashton for the Royal Danes and recently revived by the English National (a.k.a. Festival) Ballet.

It certainly wasn't the epochal "Romeo" created for the Bolshoi by Leonid Lavrovsky in 1946 with the ageless Galina Ulanova as Juliet--a production preserved, and still revered, on film. Yuri Grigorovich, the current Bolshoi boss, tossed out the Lavrovsky edition back in 1979 and supplanted it with a dubious reinterpretation of his own.

Los Angeles saw all of it at Shrine Auditorium that year--it isn't a particularly happy memory--and the over-extended first act turned up in Bolshoi vaudeville shows at the Music Center in 1987. This weekend, the muddled Grigorovich extravaganza returned in toto to the Shrine for four performances with two sets of principals.

Once again, the ballet boggled the senses, for all the wrong reasons.

Grigorovich, you may recall, is a choreographer who wants everyone to dance, dance, dance at every given moment. He values movement for its own frantic sake, whether or not it happens to suit the mood and music at foot. Everyone must look busy.

Unfortunately, his movement vocabulary--a distinctly repetitive vocabulary--seems limited to basic classroom exercises. These are embellished at predictable points with swooping acrobatics for the heroes, swooning arabesques for the heroines, military pomp stances for the decorative men and unison semaphore exercises for the corresponding women.

In this very long, very dull, very ponderous and very anticlimactic "Romeo," Grigorovich plays slow and loose with the Shakespeare source, with the Pyotrovsky/Radlov libretto, and even with the miraculous Prokofiev score. The choreographer shuffles scenes, reassigns motives, opens time-honored cuts, contradicts dramatic logic and distorts temporal progression. He blithely reduces the specific narrative to a jumble of inane generalities.

This, you may recall, is a "Romeo" without mime, a "Romeo" that needs no balcony, no bed, no Benvolio, no Rosaline, no death for Paris. This is a "Romeo" without focus, without insinuation, without confrontation and without passion.

The characters are blanched, their motives blurred beyond recognition. Striking what must have seemed a modernist pose in the Moscow of '79, Grigorovich aimed for simplification. Unfortunately, he didn't acknowledge the distinction between stylization and abstraction. He also confused frenzy with excitement, languor with lyricism, padding with development.

Grigorovich didn't even provide his hard-working dancers with grateful vehicles. His Romeo is just another wide-eyed dancing wimp. His Juliet is an all-purpose droopy ballerina. His Tybalt and Mercutio are circus athletes--the former impersonating a matador, the latter a clown.

The minor characters take on strange new guises. The Nurse becomes a comic vamp, the Friar a convenient porteur for the heroine, Paris a danseur noble manque , Lady Capulet the leader of an imitative chorus of breast-beating mourners.

Under the oppressive circumstances, who happens to be dancing what doesn't seem to matter very much. Friday night, Yuri Vasyuchenko played a pretty, pretty dull Romeo to the oddly sophisticated, marvelously long-limbed Juliet of Nina Ananiashvili. Both painted only in monotones.

The expressive temperature rose a few degrees on Saturday afternoon. On this occasion, 26-year-old Yuri Posokhov introduced a slender, fine-lined, technically erratic Romeo opposite the exquisitely self-conscious Juliet of the senior ballerina in residence, Ludmila Sememyaka.

Tybalt, the last Bolshoi assignment set on Alexander Godunov, stalked the boards with suave charm in the person of Mark Peretokin (Friday) and with tough menace when Alexander Vetrov took over (Saturday afternoon). The saucy air turns and legs-up death throes of Mercutio were deftly maneuvered by two crowd-pleasers: first Alexander Petukhov, then Mikhail Sharkov.

It may be worth noting that the crowd at the Saturday matinee was so pleased by the bravura encounter between those wacky Capulet and Montague fellows that it applauded the moment when Tybalt stabbed Mercutio in the back. A climax, after all, is a climax.

The unchanging collection of comprimarios included Yelena Maslennikova as the willowy Lady Capulet, Alexei Dovgopoly as the classically extrovert Paris, Yuri Vetrov as the not-so-holy Friar, and Yelena Bobrova as the heel-kicking Nurse. Gedeminas Taranda, one of the Bolshoi's most compelling firebrands, was inexplicably demoted to the nearly invisible duties of a Moorish flute-tootler.

The late Simon Virsaladze's decors provided neutral drapes and a few incidental props. His generally conventional, color-coded costumes favored tights for the men with legs in contrasting colors--an old Bolshoi aberration. Poor Juliet had to contend with long, stifling Romantic tutus. The worst of these was the crimson, rhinestone-bedecked number that the demure teen-age virgin wore at her entrance.

In the steamy pit, Algis Zhuraitis presided knowingly over a valiant local orchestra that seemed to be undergoing on-the-job training. Rehearsal time must have been scarce.

Oh, well. On to "Swan Lake."

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