- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 22, 2003

When American Ballet Theatre's sumptuously conceived "Romeo and Juliet" opened this week, the question was, would the ballet work on the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall stage devoid of proscenium arch and almost all its scenery and still present a satisfying performance?
The short answer is yes. In fact, to my surprise, I found the familiar ballet taking on fresh appeal when seen in this stripped-down version during Tuesday night's opening.
Instead of towering sets and dazzling scene changes, the action is played out against the Concert Hall's handsome wood paneling and gleaming pipe organ.
The orchestra, placed onstage behind the dancers, adds another intriguing element. The conductor, with his back to the dancers, monitors their movements through a video camera.
At some climactic moments, the intense bowing of the strings adds to rather than distracts from the dancers' impassioned movements.
The immediacy of seeing dancers bring their leaps and pirouettes right to the front edge of the stage without the distancing of an orchestra pit, and the sense that the performers are carrying the whole weight of the ballet, gave an edge of risk that heightened the drama.
The drama could not have been more thrilling than it was Tuesday night, when Alessandra Ferri and Julio Bocca were incandescent in the title roles.
The two dancers have performed together for years, and this tale of love flowering only to end in tragedy is one they have brought to burnished perfection.
She is a great dancer-actress, with rare skill in both areas. When she dances, the beautiful arch of her foot is a marvel; her quicksilver body seems born to express Juliet's passion. As an actress, she expresses feelings with headlong abandon or sits frozen in stillness, her face a mask of grief.
Mr. Bocca plays Romeo with an almost casual naturalness. He inhabits the role; the part seems to fit him like a second skin.
The late Kenneth MacMillan, who choreographed "Romeo and Juliet," created partnering challenges with the flowing cantilena line of the balcony scene and its seamless, difficult lifts and the final pas de deux in the tomb when Romeo flings around a seemingly lifeless Juliet. As a partner, Mr. Bocca met those challenges superbly.
He was strong, though a little sketchy, in his own dance passages, but the performance went way beyond technique. His growing passion for Juliet was a crucial element in the impact of the ballet.
Both Miss Ferri and Mr. Bocca made the love story personal and believable.
ABT's second performance Wednesday night was a very different affair. Xiomara Reyes made her debut as Juliet, partnered with the brilliant dancer Angel Corella.
This first time out, Miss Reyes emphasized the dancing she has a light, airy jump and the technical strength to carry this demanding role.
So far, there is little nuance to her one-dimensional Juliet, but at least Miss Reyes was not afraid to show feelings onstage.
Mr. Corella produced the most pyrotechnic dancing of the week, throwing off cascades of multiple pirouettes and double air turns with astounding precision. The dancing was so dazzling and swift that there was little opportunity for love to develop.
Mr. MacMillan created a wealth of opportunity for dramatic confrontation: Juliet with her nurse or her stern father; the critical moment when she decides to seek help from Friar Laurence, skimming across the stage like a bird in desperate flight; the poignancy of her plea not to be made marry someone she doesn't love.
Joining Mr. Bocca Thursday evening as his Juliet was Julie Kent, perhaps the finest American dancer-actress today. Although they are not ideal partners physically she is a little tall for him in every other way they performed with an emotional rapport that was extraordinary.
Miss Kent brought many gifts to the part: her beauty, her soft way of moving and an interpretation marked by deep poetic insights into Juliet's plight. In the bedroom scene with Romeo, her body luxuriated in its sensuality. When he left, she was bereft. Her tragic aloneness was palpable. The rich texture of her performance makes it one to see again and again.
Mr. MacMillan's crowd scenes are not inspired, and they used to seem endless, but ABT has tamed the ubiquitous three harlots, turning them into dancing girls, not vulgar caricatures, and also tamped down the overdone histrionics of Tybalt's death scene two considerable improvements.
Joaquin De Luz brought fireworks to the role of Mercutio. Other notable dancing came from Stella Abrera as Rosaline and Ethan Brown as Tybalt.
ABT brought an extra treat this time: the cameo performance of Frederic Franklin as Friar Laurence. Mr. Franklin, 88, an important dancer with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo from the 1930s through the 1950s, was director of the important but late, lamented National Ballet here in Washington from 1962 to 1974. It was a pleasure to see him on the boards again.
This afternoon, the lovers will be danced by Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Belotserkovsky. At tomorrow's matinee, the roles will be taken by Ashley Tuttle and Jose Manuel Carreno. Miss Reyes and Mr. Corella will reprise their roles tomorrow night.

WHAT: American Ballet Theatre in "Romeo and Juliet"
WHEN: Today at 1:30 p.m., tomorrow at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall
TICKETS: $27 to $75
PHONE: 202/467-4600


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