Joseph Gorak and Misty Copeland as Romeo and Juliet. (Rosalie O'Connor)
Dance critic

Not since Mikhail Baryshnikov’s performances 30 years ago has Wolf Trap seen a ballet crowd like the one that caused a backup on the Dulles Toll Road Friday night. This time, it was a ballerina causing the crush: Misty Copeland, starring in “Romeo and Juliet.”

The outdoor performing arts center was so packed that cars were forced to line up and idle even before they reached the Wolf Trap exit. Copeland, the American Ballet Theatre principal and best-known ballerina in the country, if not beyond, drew more than 7,000 spectators. It was one of the largest paid audiences in ABT’s history, according to Wolf Trap and ABT officials.

Ironies abounded. The ballet that the public came to see was all wrong for July. Choreographer Kenneth MacMillan’s version of “Romeo and Juliet” runs a full three hours long, so it’s almost tomorrow by the time you’re hunting for your car. The ballet ends up in a tomb, but for many in the company it started there as well, figuratively. The ensemble dancers were nearly buried under Renaissance-inspired costumes of heavy damask and velvet. They had to be cooking beneath all that fabric and the hot lights.

Occasional sweet breezes cooled the audience, but as the stage was hung with miles of drapes and tapestries, the dancers surely felt none of it. ABT performed “Romeo and Juliet” three nights in a row (with Hee Seo starring last Thursday, and Gillian Murphy on Saturday), and the costumes probably never had time to dry out.

Fame more than virtuosity accounts for Copeland’s box-office appeal, the excited cheers that welcomed her to the stage, and the applause that competed with the orchestra’s performance of the Prokofiev score. Copeland is the least experienced of the three Juliets, having debuted in the role just last year. Yet she was exceptionally charming and alluring as the impassioned teenager who drives Shakespeare’s romance. With her supple feet and powerful legs, she added a sense of flight. Copeland, who came to ballet late, at 13, and reached its pinnacle while battling the many obstacles that have filled her books and landed her on magazine covers, knows more than a little about Juliet’s will to escape.

Seeing Romeo (the similarly youthful Joseph Gorak) at the Capulet ball seemed to unlock something inside Copeland’s Juliet, as she spun and unfurled with new freedom to show off for him. Her agitation when the pair was discovered by her family was palpable. Maybe that’s what put one member of the natural world on edge, too. Was it a bird, a bat or a large moth that fluttered onstage and dipped and swooped among the dancers? It landed nearly at Copeland’s feet, frantically blurring its wings as if to echo the rattle of Juliet’s heart.

In fact, “Romeo and Juliet” and the winsome Copeland formed a perfect match, and surprisingly transporting fare for a heat wave. Most important: In a season of blood-soaked daily news, an inspiring artist coming into flower and a ballet about the eternal, overriding power of love felt exactly right.

This ballet lives and luxuriates in the emotional realm. Romeo is a virtuosic role, which all three men, including Cory Stearns (paired with Seo) and James Whiteside (with Murphy) inhabited convincingly. But Juliet is different. She is spun from vulnerability and music, rather than muscle.

Copeland is most concerned with the contours of the role now — the beautiful, surrendering shapes that Juliet’s body makes when Romeo lifts her, and the stretch of her limbs. She hasn’t yet found the spiritual dimension. This is where Seo and Murphy proved to be the more interesting ballerinas. Seo is almost weightless, with a quality of liquid silver. She looked like a child, and chewed her lip in befuddled, perfect Lucille Ball style when her nurse pointed out that she’s developing womanly curves. Her Juliet was full of small moments like that. As the music crashed around her while she sat on her bed — a major, telling moment, as Juliet contemplates her arranged marriage — Seo gripped the coverlet and gasped as if the air had been sucked from her lungs. You couldn’t help but feel winded, too.

Murphy, a highly athletic dancer, channeled that energy into raw commitment. Her Juliet was racing toward her fate, even as she stood still. There was a fascinating tension in her temperament — purity mixed with flame — and in her body, where the long, steely lines of her legs and feet set off the floating softness of her arms and shoulders.

She also presided over a lovely post-performance mini-ceremony on Saturday, when the company’s longtime associate artistic director, Victor Barbee, took the stage for the last time with ABT, portraying Lord Capulet. He joined the company in 1975, and is leaving to become associate artistic director of the Washington Ballet. An excellent character actor, he made us believe he carried the weight of a dynasty on his shoulders. After taking her bows, Murphy brought Barbee onstage to be honored and gave him her bouquet, Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie bestowed him with another, and with his arms full of flowers Barbee acknowledged bravos and applause. And so an extraordinary run of more than 40 years was closed with grace and love.

If ever we needed an extravagant reminder of what love not only looks like but feels like, it’s now. People bent on killing one another have been shaping our days in a staggering rush. It’s no solace to know that this human stain has always been with us. But just as surely, throughout history the poets and balladeers have sung of love. In their way, dancers and choreographers do so, too, as this “Romeo and Juliet” and the devotion and gentleness of its casts made clear. Watching this ballet, we can ride along with the lovers and hope that human connection will win the day. Even when it doesn’t, fine performances like these send us into the night with beauty, music and ineffable tenderness. That’s no small gift.