There was a lot going on Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The audience was giddy, freed from the snow and the kids and very, very chatty. Laura Bush was in the first balcony, sitting with Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre. Other dancers and staff of the company were scattered throughout the seats, plumping up the loosely filled house. And when the lights went up, lo and behold, there was a ballet on the Concert Hall stage.
It was Sir Kenneth MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet," ordinarily the grandest of spectacles, Italianate splendor by way of the Elizabethan imagination, reinterpreted with 20th-century orgiastic excess. But this was R&J Lite: With the Opera House under renovation, the Concert Hall was hosting a ballet for the first time in its 32-year-history, and that meant the circumstances were far from ideal.
Yet, miraculously, the ballet hung together. Alessandra Ferri, in her only performance here as Juliet, made sure of it.
Ferri looks as though she'd blow away if you breathed on her. If she has bones at all, they were never apparent. She has gorgeously pliant feet -- the arch deepens under her weight when she steps en pointe -- and tremendous flexibility, but it is her arms that catch and hold the eye. They match the melting quality of her dancing and yet move wholly apart from the quickness of her legs. They seem to float, lingering a beat behind the rhythm of the step so her movements are sustained, and, in fact, never seem to end.
What made her so captivating a Juliet, however, was the way she internalized the drama. This is a role she has danced for 20 years, and now that she is nearing 40, it is one of the few she still performs. It is clear why MacMillan picked her to star in this ballet soon after ABT started performing it in 1985. He was the company's artistic associate, and persuaded Ferri to quit the Royal Ballet to join him there. She has been one of the company's leading dramatic ballerinas ever since.
Ferri was not a headstrong, tempestuous Juliet, but a smart, smoldering one. Her acting, so important in this ballet, was understated -- no wide eyes, no shaking sobs. She seemed to be thinking, calculating at every moment. Watching her process events -- glimpsing a complicated internal life brought to the surface -- was vastly more interesting than all the commotion going on around her.
She made the rest of the ballet feel insignificant (though this could hardly have been in MacMillan's plan). When she was gone, one grew impatient: When, oh when, would she return to the stage? Why was so much time filled up with harlots and villagers and mandolin dances? Why can't Mercutio hurry up and die already? Oh good, here comes the third act, in which Romeo and Juliet part, she rebuffs nice-guy Paris, procures the sleeping poison and drinks it. Ferri made it all seem like a harrowing journey of the intellect, a struggle to organize emotions, thoughts and actions, a richly nuanced solo -- and if there were others onstage with her, one hardly noticed.
As Romeo, Julio Bocca was a flawless partner whose dependability in the duets was clearly part of Ferri's success. The pair's famous chemistry was palpable. You could see her breathing change when he was around. But while his positions were clean and his acting believable, Bocca's dancing was unusually tentative. His somewhat reduced performance, however, was superior to that of Joaquin de Luz as Mercutio, who approached every bit of dancing as if it were a virtuosic showcase and was oblivious to those who happened to be dancing with him, to the dramatic tone and to the musical imperatives. Round and round went his pirouettes, though the Prokofiev score had moved on and Benvolio (Carlos Lopez) had already wrapped up his variation on cue.
In adapting the ballet to the Concert Hall, the company made some wise choices. Hanging the lavish sets for the three-act, three-hour ballet was obviously impossible, so Verona was suggested only by twin balconies descending into curving stairs at each side of the stage. There were no curtain, no wings and no backdrops to hide the hall's dark paneling and organ pipes. The Opera House Orchestra sat behind the dancers, with conductor Charles Barker clearly visible as he engaged in a virtuoso solo of his own. The dancers made do with an extended stage that looked small at best and cramped at worst.
Stripping away the ballet's heavy decor turned out to be mostly a good thing. "Romeo and Juliet" is, after all, an intimate tale, and one was brought emotionally as well as physically closer to the lovers in this more casual setting, especially with no orchestra pit between seats and stage. The effect was less operatic and more like watching a play. It was a much noisier enterprise, however; the floor tended to rattle under the dancers' jumps. The brooms with which the corps busies itself in the first act's marketplace, as well as the gentlemen's clashing swords, nearly drowned out the violins.
The downside was that the ballet's limitations were more noticeable. Viewed at close range, the trio of trollops was more appallingly vulgar than usual -- the unfortunate moment when one squats over Tybalt's corpse as if to relieve herself felt particularly cheap, especially since MacMillan chose to treat us to that spectacle rather than focus on Romeo, whose fate is sealed as soon as Tybalt's body falls from his sword. The Capulet dance in the ballroom scene looked more ludicrously melodramatic than ever.
Yet the dancers, as well as the production teams, are to be commended for the smoothness of what had to be a difficult performance. It was worth the risk. Once in a while it is refreshing to take a work out of its context, peel it back to its bones, and see what happens.
Performances continue through Sunday with daily cast changes. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org