A lavish Canadian 'Romeo and Juliet'

The Capulets are having a party. They glitter in their gold and black costumes and bright capes - and they fill an elegant Verona courtyard in straight rows as they begin to quadrille. There is something martial about the way they move, and they move as one.

When Romeo (the interloping Montague in a mask) and Juliet gaze yearningly at each other, the Capulets all draw together and turn their heads toward them with chilling, unified attention. It's the visual equivalent of a collective gasp. Even if you'd never read the Shakespeare play, the corps of the National Ballet of Canada has told you just how tragic the ballet version of ''Romeo and Juliet'' (performed at the O'Keefe Center) will be.

Unfortunately, Romeo and Juliet's first duet doesn't live up to the promise of their yearning look, the one that all the Capulets could feel. It wasn't that Veronica Tennant as Juliet and Raymond Smith as Romeo didn't know their roles, it was just that they didn't seem to know each other. Smith seemed unsure of where to take hold of Tennant when he was lifting her, and Tennant's movements while carried looked strained. This is too much like real-life first love; ballet romance isn't meant to be realistic.

There was always a slight hesitation that made the love scenes less than melting. Holding Juliet in his arms, Romeo walked her backwards. Leaning back, she flowed along with him, taking long, quiet steps on point. She didn't move suddenly as if she needed to catch herself, she just seemed to be making beautiful steps. The backward steps put a little silent spot in the middle of the courtyard they were dancing through. But if Tennant and Smith had been really dancing as partners, you wouldn't have noticed them.

The wonder of great dance partners is the way they lean on each other. But even in each other's arms, Tennant and Smith moved independently, and you saw them as two dancers, not as a pair. Juliet's steps backward were beautiful, but far from falling head over heels, she was stealthily reaching out a foot for support.

In solos, both were superb. Smith danced wonderful show-off steps, lyrical but burly, leaping over his own leg, higher, higher, and higher. And Veronica Tennant is always a joy to watch. When she's introduced to the suitor her parents have picked out for her, she dodges around her father into the arms of her nurse as liquidly as a cat getting in a closing door. When she's trying to decide whether or not to take the potion that will put her into a deathlike coma , she's all angles, sitting stark upright on her bed, arms clasped around her, getting up and walking jaggedly around, sitting down, and getting up again.

John Cranko's choreography is full of visual delights that look new even though this dance was made in 1958. At the beginning, for instance, when Romeo and his friends are horseplaying in the crowded street, they sidestep up to each other, leap, and bump shoulders in the air, like young stags crashing antlers.

This ballet is lavish, richly clothed, and populated by terrific characters. Most corps de ballet can only hope for a kind of harmonious anonymity, but the corps of the National Ballet of Canada is so good it has character.

''Romeo and Juliet'' was a feast for the eyes. You almost forgot that the fire in the middle of it never got lit.

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