at the Civic Center for Performing Arts

April 6-10 and 12-16

The Cleveland San Jose Ballet’s full-length Romeo and Juliet incorporated two of the most damnable faults a performance can bear: the attempt to distract from bad dancing with stunning sets, and the presentation of characters so unsympathetic that we ultimately care nothing about them.

Having watched Romeo and Juliet run its disappointing course, I was amazed at what the company then presented in a Sunday program of repertory works. They sparkled in two rousing pieces by artistic director Dennis Nahat–Celebrations and In Studio D–and launched Leonide Massine’s Gaite parisienne with elan.

The difference, I believe, is maturity. One may prance about like a child in Gaite; and the dancers need only play themselves, dancers taking class, in Studio D. But Romeo and Juliet requires a wiser approach–the dancers must be able to act, and behave like adults.

Of all the story ballets, Romeo and Juliet contains perhaps the least dancing–a couple of pas de deux for the lead pair, nimble jumps and turns for Mercutio, and various milling-about steps for the townspeople. There are no variations to speak of–little dancing that can be extracted from the whole and performed on its own, except for the balcony scene pas de deux. The story, and our interest, must be carried by the narrative sweep of Prokofiev’s score and by the drama. Without good acting and mime to take us through the standing-around parts, the ballet quickly becomes boring. Most everyone knows how the story goes–we want to feel it.

It might seem that acting and dancing would be closely allied; that a dancer who has learned to make his body an expressive instrument could do the same for his face. However, this is not the case. Just as it is rare to see a truly musical dancer, it is difficult to find one who can muster a good dramatic performance. Perhaps this is fallout from early ballet-school days, when eager mums push their little darlings onstage with the earnest entreaty to “Smile!” Many dancers seem to think a good grin is sufficient presentation and can advance little beyond it.

That the Cleveland San Jose dancers are not an exception is somewhat surprising because Nahat, while a member of American Ballet Theatre, was known for his character roles. Not that the talents of the artistic director automatically rub off on the dancers (there are certainly no other Baryshnikovs in ABT), but in a smaller, “regional” ballet company one might expect that the dancers would be privy to lots of personal attention. This does not seem to be the case with CSJ.

Arrayed in bright, generous costumes, against flamboyant sets (both by David Guthrie), the corps was certainly lively. Energy was not lacking, but direction was. When not dancing, the “townspeople” bumped and jostled each other, gesturing ceaselessly with their arms as if to exclaim, “Look at all this!” “And all that!” One man was particularly distracting–while making no effort to turn out his legs or stretch his feet, he flailed his arms about like he was practicing a golf swing, punctuating his movements with a gaping mouth. He apparently thought himself to be brimming with “stage presence.” One can, however, overflow with presence and remain in character.

Had some of that energy been evident in the sword fight between the warring Montagues and Capulets, that scene might have been wildly exciting; as it was, I was more afraid for the safety of the dancers’ eyes than for the lives of their characters. The swordplay should be swift and daring, with loud, fearsome clangs of metal, but these duelers could hardly master the lunging steps, let alone brandish the swords. When the two patriarchs entered the fray, they seemed so flat, so lacking in authority, as to be laughable. And so the strife that separates the families and dooms the lovers seemed trivial.

While the principal dancers seemed as confused as the corps about which ballet they were in, their dancing was at least strong and forthright. Nahat’s prancing Mercutio had a discernible attitude; it did not seem the right attitude–his mincing steps and snooty air seemed more fitting for a cocky court jester than a bawdy lover–but it was consistent. While he is the most earthbound of the Mercutios I’ve seen (the role is customarily a showcase for a technical wizard who dashes off flurries of jumps and pirouettes), Nahat is a natural comic. He had the crowd tittering as he dashed about the Capulet ball, stealing wine and dodging capture.

Opening night’s star-crossed lovers were Karen Gabay and Raymond Rodriguez, both petite, dark, and Latin-looking. They presented quite different characters than those of the second cast, permanent guest artist and ABT principal Cynthia Gregory and her partner, CSJ’s Peter DiBonaventura. These two were a tall, stately couple, both with long, tapered legs and commanding technique.

Gabay was a Juliet in the Giselle vein–fey, delicate, childlike, and unworldly. She looked 13, and her Romeo did too; much too young, in fact, to have Nahat’s Mercutio for a friend.

While Gabay appeared reluctant to dance at the ball, and downright scared of Paris (whom her parents wish her to marry), Gregory burst onto the dance floor like Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora on her 16th birthday. The ball was all for her, and she wanted to enjoy every minute of it. She greeted Paris with a coy smile and was flattered to dance with him. When she saw Romeo, the attraction was instant–and we believed it because, through her precise technique and glowing demeanor, she had established herself as a willful woman. The ensuing pas de deux seemed tailor-made for Gregory (and Gabay and Rodriguez struggled through it)–the lifts and swings gave us lots of time to appreciate her long limbs and slender points. Her legs flew about beneath her without a ripple through her upper body. As DiBonaventura swung her about in his arms, the glittering folds of her skirt followed the sweep of her legs like an echo. DiBonaventura was a princely Romeo, and reminded me of ABT’s Ross Stretton–well-mannered and attentive, if a little cool.

The ballroom set drew applause, but I felt it was a violent shock. Until Romeo and Juliet come on, in quiet shades of ivory, rose, and pale blue, there is nowhere to rest one’s eyes. The costumes were drenched in rich, hot reds, violets, pinks, and oranges, against deep red walls. Candelabras hung from the rafters, along with flags of all colors. When the guests somberly strode en masse downstage to Prokofiev’s booming bass drum-and-horn march, it was like an onslaught of dazzling zombies. But of course, the set was so overwhelming, who cared?

The only tasteful set was the one for the balcony scene, which seemed truly moon-bathed and gleaming, with a starlit sky. Here again, Nahat’s choreography was beyond the scope of his own principals, Gabay and Rodriguez, who could not make the difficult lifts, with legs flung every which way, look spontaneous. But Gregory and DiBonaventura added texture to the steps–he, tossing off pirouettes and arabesque turns like roses to his lady; she, one moment going limp from his kisses, the next leaping and spinning in eager desire.

If Gabay would soften her fixed smile and wide-eyed stare she would be a more appealing performer. She is a good actress. She outdid Gregory in the bedroom scene of act three, in which Juliet is alone for several minutes, overwhelmed by her longing for Romeo, grief over her dead cousin, Tybalt, and revulsion for Paris, whom her parents insist she must wed. Gregory could not whip herself into the adolescent fever that Gabay produced in this scene.

At the end of the story, Shakespeare tells us the lovers “Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife,” yet we wouldn’t know it from this performance. Nahat tries to give us a sense of forgiveness between the two families, but his dancers can’t deliver it. Lords Capulet and Montague have been grim and scowling throughout, and their clinging, wailing wives have clung and wailed heartily. They never pass over the threshold of caricature. When the two lords raised quivering fists, staring grimly into each others’ eyes by the bodies of their dead children, I didn’t see any hint of reconciliation, of hope for tomorrow springing from the lovers’ ruin. But then at that point, I didn’t care much.

Nahat should put his Romeo and Juliet in storage until the company as a whole matures. They need to grow into the classical mode, and until then they do a very pretty job in Nahat’s original shorter works, such as they performed Sunday. There I found the sincerity and joy missing from Romeo and Juliet. In Celebrations Nahat’s choreography to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was overblown and busy, and again a bit beyond the reach of some dancers in its complexity, but the spectacle was thrilling, as the dancers, in simple white costumes, filled the stage, flying on and off and across it with bold, sweeping lifts and turns.

They looked even better in Nahat’s In Studio D, a series of sketches done in a studio setting, accompanied by full-bodied Broadway singer Harriet Leider. The dancers didn’t have to act; they are just as young, bright-eyed, and eager to please as Peter Wright’s specially commissioned lyrics painted them. Leider belted out: “You deserve a follow-spot, ’cause what you’ve got is quite a lot–you’ve got presence!” And this time they really did.

Nahat smartly wrapped up Sunday’s crowd-pleasing show with Gaite parisienne. The company overplayed it a bit, as if it were a carnival, but this ballet does not suffer much from excess vulgarity. Raymond Rodriguez as the womanizing Peruvian managed to be hilarious and pitiful as he unsuccessfully wooed Cynthia Gregory’s Gloveseller. Many in the audience were moved to clap along with Jacques Offenbach’s cancan, which was brightly illustrated with rows of ruffled skirts and long legs.

The repertory program repeats this Saturday night, and the company will fill out the week with Nahat’s full-length Nutcracker, his staging of which I hope is not as out of sync with his dancers as it is with the season.