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Many names, still sweet

Times Staff Writer

Imaginative in its blending of a wide range of movement resources -- pantomime, gymnastics, character dance, theatricalized folklore and, of course, classical ballet -- John Cranko’s three-act “Romeo and Juliet” has long been a staple of the international repertory.

Southern California audiences have grown familiar with it through frequent performances by the Joffrey Ballet beginning in the mid-1980s, as well as a few visits by Germany’s superb Stuttgart Ballet, Cranko’s home company from 1961 until his death in 1973.

Three Stuttgart casts at the Orange County Performing Arts Center over the weekend confirmed that Cranko’s 1962 Shakespearean dance drama remains fresh and involving -- despite the endless intermissions (a 24-minute break after a 31-minute act, for instance) that have become one of the center’s most dubious traditions.

The weekend performances offered local audiences their first look at the revised 1992 sets and costumes by the production’s original designer, Jurgen Rose: a more somber statement than before, though no less handsome. And the interaction of veteran “Romeo and Juliet” leads with dancers new to major roles demonstrated how the Cranko/Stuttgart style renews itself.

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On Saturday night, for instance, Filip Barankiewicz made an auspicious debut as Romeo opposite Sue Jin Kang, whose Juliet has always been ideally childlike and vivacious in the early scenes but who has now reached impressive tragic stature in the potion and tomb solos.

Especially passionate in the aftermath of Tybalt’s death, Barankiewicz partnered Kang ardently and helped her embody the most conventional interpretation of Shakespeare’s tragedy but also arguably the most heartbreaking -- that of two beautiful, loving children utterly unprepared for calamity.

On Saturday afternoon, however, Elena Tentschikowa’s debut as Juliet suggested a radical alternative: the story of a willful child of power who discovers her own true nature only when she demands what she can’t have. More stalwart than romantic as Romeo, Douglas Lee encountered partnering difficulties and his naturalistic acting didn’t always mesh well with Tentschikowa’s more stylized approach, but the potential for a forceful, contemporary “Romeo and Juliet” gave their partnership uncommon interest.

On Friday, the remarkable refinement, sensitivity and expressive detail of Yseult Lendvai’s Juliet evoked the memory of Carla Fracci, Cranko’s first (pre-Stuttgart) Juliet. In his debut as Romeo, the coltish Jason Reilly looked at Lendvai with wonder and partnered her as if in custody of a fragile treasure. Their rapt spontaneity and technical surety made the partnership exceptionally satisfying.

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Subsidiary performances upheld the company’s reputation for casting in depth, but some achievements definitely outclassed others. Both Robert Conn and Ibrahim Onal, for example, proved effective as Tybalt. But on Saturday afternoon, Jiri Jelinek found a complexity and a genuine sense of danger in the role that made his portrayal unforgettable.

Similarly, Eric Gauthier and Ivan Gil Ortega gave Mercutio energy, charm and plenty of airy virtuosity -- though Stuttgart men don’t always seem to worry about nailing their terminations as much as they might. Thomas Lempertz, however, not only nailed them on Saturday night but also brought a dimension of poetic fancy to his dancing that made his extended death scene seem the shortest and most eventful of the weekend.

Commanding in physique, with a unique soulful gaze, Wieslaw Dudek made something special of his performances as Paris and Friar Laurence, just as the Act 2 carnival dances boasted quirky star power when Jorge Nozal took the lead. In Cranko’s version, Benvolio has no individual function or personality, but Reilly, Javier Amo Gonzalez and Marijn Rademaker (another debut) all behaved as if it were a stepping-stone to greatness -- and it sometimes is.

Irina Schlaht bumbled sympathetically through all three performances as Juliet’s nurse and Melinda Witham appeared equally often as a multifaceted and ultimately tragic Lady Capulet -- though the mourning for Tybalt could have been stronger given the high intensity of Cranko’s staging and Prokofiev’s score. The time for tasteful understatement has long since passed when you’re being carried on a bier, atop a corpse, to orchestral screams of anguish.

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Played diligently by the Pacific Symphony, the score was skillfully conducted at the Friday and Saturday evening shows by James Tuggle and at the Saturday matinee by Glenn Prince.


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