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Flash Review 1, 4-3: Legacies
In Cranko's House with Stuttgart

By Aimee Ts'ao
Copyright 2003 Aimee Ts'ao

BERKELEY -- When I heard that the Stuttgart Ballet would be performing at the end of March at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, I was hoping to see what the company has been up to recently. Instead, it gave three performances of John Cranko's "Romeo & Juliet," first choreographed in 1958 for La Scala Ballet in Milan with Carla Fracci in the leading role, then re-set on Cranko's own Stuttgart company in 1962. It's not that I was disappointed exactly, but I had seen this company when it made its fabulous New York debut in 1969, performing all three of Cranko's renowned evening-length ballets, "The Taming of the Shrew," "Eugene Onegin" and "Romeo & Juliet," with such dancers as Marcia Haydee, Richard Cragun, Egon Madsen, Birgit Keil and Susanna Hanke, and those are quite some legends to live up to.

In the leading roles opening night, Thursday, March 27, were Sue Jin Kang and Filip Barankiewicz. Kang was given the "must see" by my editor Paul Ben-Itzak and as the company was not very definite in the casting until the last minute, I committed to seeing two performances as a back-up strategy. Her dancing is beautifully clear, with a crystalline edge usually associated with attack, yet with her it is effortless. She never does a step for the sake of showing how high or how many she is capable of, but rather only to further her artistic expression. In these days of ubiquitous technical accomplishment without insight, it is very refreshing to see such taste and refinement. My Stuttgart mole, a friend who has been associated with the company for 31 years, says that she is one of the few dancers remaining from the days when Haydee was artistic director, before the current director Reid Anderson. Haydee liked Kang very much and coached her in these important Cranko roles. From her entrance as the young and innocent adolescent to her wrenching suicide, nothing is left to chance; the entire arc of Juliet's development in a matter of days is clearly delineated. While this approach could also be seen as a liability, lacking in spontaneity, it is still filled with emotion and very satisfying. The only drawback is the production itself, which ultimately limits Kang's ability to explore the role more. Cranko's choreography is lauded as being one of the best versions around. It does have many fine attributes: the variations, the ensemble work, the momentum of the drama. Yet it is also shorter and less detailed in many ways, which doesn't allow as much time for character development or understanding the complex societal and cultural context of the historical era.

As Romeo, Barankiewicz is wonderfully charismatic; I can't take my eyes off him. He possesses a deceptively easy technique, his multiple turns are almost taken for granted, his jumps simply flying, and his exquisite line an afterthought. That is not to say he hasn't worked very, very hard, but the result appears natural and you are convinced he was born able to do it all. In addition, he dances with passion. There are passages with Juliet when he dissolves into the moment and the movement, he is in love and then totally surrenders to it. Barankiewicz's spontaneity makes a slight mismatch with Kang's approach. I would find out the following day that it was only his second performance in the role. Perhaps as he settles in he will be more in tune with whomever he is partnered, though his is an auspicious beginning.

Other dancers who catch my eye are Thomas Lampertz as Mercutio and Ibrahim Onal as Tybalt. Both are strong artists and know how to act their parts without pushing their portrayals over the line into caricature. This is a particular danger when they both are required to die dramatically. The corps de ballet also performs with a unity of style and a solid level of energy that needs to be commended.

The next evening I am back to see another cast. Making her debuting as Juliet is Bridget Breiner and again, it's a very promising start. Breiner is a beautiful dancer who can also act and does an excellent job of drawing me into her inner world. One moment ecstatic, the next confused by her own feelings, she continually reveals different aspects of a budding woman in love trapped by circumstances beyond her control. It would be interesting to see her paired with Barankiewicz, as they both have a passionate side. As it is, her Romeo, Jiri Jelinek, is having an off night technically and appears to be throwing himself indiscriminately into his acting to make up for the deficit. With maturity, he will learn not to fight fire with fire and instead draw on artistry. Douglas Lee makes a very elegant and notable Paris. Mercutio is strongly played by Ivan Gil Ortega, while Barankiewicz is positively charming and funny as Benvolio.

I leave the theater, not emotionally devastated as I was after seeing Fonteyn and Nureyev in Kenneth MacMillan's version, but saddened, thinking about the idea of needless, senseless death and its inevitability in the world we live in. The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet existed long before Shakespeare in other forms, and the fact that we haven't evolved much in centuries is more than sobering; it's quite depressing. It makes what little love we find in our own lives and in the world in general all the more precious.

The Stuttgart Ballet itself is a fine example of how the arts can bring together many different kinds of people working toward a common, constructive and beautiful goal. The dancers are German, French, English, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Czech, Korean, Turkish, North and South American and backstage there is a wonderful, and startling, mix of many languages, often sequentially from one mouth. The need for universal communication has made English the lingua franca for rehearsals, class and company business. It gives hope that one day the peoples of the world will find a common language, and that perhaps the arts will provide the means.

Dancer, dance teacher, and writer Aimee Ts'ao is the Dance Insider's West Coast bureau chief and senior ballet writer.

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