New York City Ballet: Romeo + Juliet

David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY; Saturday February 21 (m), Sunday 22, 2015

Jerry Hochman

Lauren Lovette as Juliet in Peter Martins' Romeo + Juliet'.  Photo © Paul Kolnik

Lauren Lovette as Juliet in Peter Martins’ Romeo + Juliet’.
Photo © Paul Kolnik

In 2011, I wrote that Lauren Lovette, then still in her first year in the corps, would be a natural Juliet, with Chase Finlay, then a newly-promoted soloist, as her Romeo. On Saturday afternoon, in her first full-length role, she debuted in the role. Her Romeo, also in his role debut, was Finlay. I should always be so prescient.

It was a remarkable debut – for both of them. And a remarkable afternoon for the NYCB audience, which braved the chill and the forecast of a significant snowstorm to fill practically every seat in the house.

For a company supposedly without stars, NYCB has had more than its share of star ballerinas. Still a soloist (don’t expect that rank to last long), Lovette is already one of them. In the past year, she’s become practically ubiquitous; she’s New York ballet’s current ‘it’ girl, for good reason. But even though she looks the part and can do the steps and act the role, none of which surprised me, actually pulling off Juliet, first time out, with the texture and nuance of a veteran, is an exceptional achievement.

Of course, it’s not just the technique, or the acting, or looking the part. Every ballerina who dances any role, particularly roles in story ballets, necessarily brings a special quality to it – a special ‘something’ that makes her performance different. Except in the most rigidly abstract pieces, they don’t leave their personalities in the wings. (This is true for male dancers as well, but for me that special quality in men is more difficult to decode.) The steps might be the same, and the story (if there is one) certainly is, but the spirit is her own. Of NYCB’s current crop of Juliets – Sterling Hyltin, Tiler Peck, Erica Pereira, and now Lovette, each brings to the stage this distinctive personal quality.

But Lovette, already, is past that point. She makes you feel things differently. It’s not just that quality of innocence and sensuality, or her ability to become, and to project, her character with every core of her being. It’s more basic. It’s something in the way she moves; an indescribable ‘something’ that transcends the choreography and transcends the proscenium and makes an audience not just want to watch her dance a role, but want to live it with her. It’s the ‘something’ that made her Calliope (in “Apollo”) different – a different angle of her head or upward thrust of her arms that made her muse irresistible. The ‘something’ that made her “Rubies” (in “Jewels”) different, by magnifying the role’s distinct sensuality and making choreographic details more stunningly apparent. The ‘something’ that made her Julie Jordan (in “Carousel: A Dance”) different, performed with a degree of innocence and inherent radiance that grabbed the heart. The ‘something’ that made her Novice (in “The Cage”) different, and unforgettably vicious and erotic. And the ‘something’ that made her performance in “DGV” different, simply by being unable to suppress her natural effervescence a second longer than necessary. As an acquaintance observed a few seasons ago, her performances are magical.

And Lovette’s ability to express emotion full to the fingertips in every role where it’s called for couldn’t be more apparent than it was as Juliet. Literally. In the balcony scene, for example, at one point Romeo lifts Juliet above his head; her upper body falling backward behind him, with her arms and fingers stretched out in ecstasy. The image is repeated in the crypt, when Romeo lifts the apparently dead Juliet up until her upper body falls backward over his shoulder. In all the Juliets, one can see the difference in the way her arms are displayed: in the balcony scene, they’re alive with ecstasy; in the crypt, they’re in the same position, but they’re lifeless. With Lovette, even her fingers have no life left in them.

Perhaps because of her distinctive stage personality or the differences in the way she draws an audience in, I was able to see details more clearly, and to see things in Martins’ work I’d not previously appreciated. I still think the choreography itself is mediocre. But there are ideas in this version that are fresh and interesting, even if the choreography isn’t; ideas that make this production visually rich. As just one example, when Juliet and Paris dance together in the ballroom scene, and Paris places his hand on her thigh, all of the Juliets seem unpleasantly surprised by it. Lovette’s reaction is slightly different – she is immediately angered by it. And that little glimpse out of the corner of her eye, her obvious awareness of everything happening to her and around her, was all that was necessary to reveal Juliet’s feisty temperament, and to set up a clear contrast with her response to Paris’s identical conduct later in the ballet, during their dance together after she’s agreed to marry him. This second time, she did not respond at all. It wasn’t that she didn’t notice or wasn’t paying attention: this Juliet would never have just not noticed it. It was that she was emotionally numb and not feeling anything. There are many more examples. With Lovette, I expected nothing less than this kind of detail and emotional clarity.

Finlay, however, is tougher to predict. He always dances competently; at times (as with his Apollo) extraordinarily. And his stage presence is never an issue. But he also can appear wooden, not necessarily inappropriately so given the absence of an emotional component in many of Balanchine’s abstract pieces, but in a way that makes it appear as if he’s not engaged. Not so Saturday afternoon. His Romeo was the most complete of those I’ve previously seen, because to me he was the first to successfully fuse Martins’ conception of the innocent/dreamer Romeo with the killer who executes Tybalt and then Paris in fits of rage.

Where Finlay’s performance took Romeo to another level was in his partnering. For a variety of reasons, one would expect the partnering to be seamless and filled with emotion. And it was. But there was something else here, an edginess, a degree of risk-taking, that the two might not have done with other partners – particularly in the balcony scene.

Martins’ balcony scene comes nowhere near MacMillan’s in the ferocity of its passion or the complexity of its choreography. It’s on a smaller scale, too simple-looking, too repetitious. Even at its best, it doesn’t soar. With Lovette and Finlay, it did – because they added an emotional overlay and degree of calculated risk-taking that took the choreography to a higher level. Lovette nailed every unassisted turn up to the balcony scene. But there are two points during that scene where Juliet turns en pointe slowly as if in ecstasy. The turn begins unassisted, with Romeo catching her in mid turn, keeping her line straight. In each of these turns, Lovette was slightly off center, and Finlay, each time, and in the nick of time, was there to rein her in. I initially thought this was a minor flaw in an otherwise flawless performance to that point, but with the second identical ‘flaw’, I began to think it was rehearsed – intentionally making those turns look more precarious, and Romeo’s secure rescue each time look more meaningful – as if she wasn’t just ecstatic, but in a romantic swoon. I’ve not seen (or noticed) this with any of the other pairs

Lovette and Finlay’s performance of this relatively mediocre scene took it to another dimension, one that the audience recognized. For the first time in eight “Romeo + Juliet” performances I’ve seen over the years, I heard audience members near me exhale and sigh, and people simultaneously murmur in low, overwhelmed voices, ‘wow’.

On Sunday afternoon Finlay was replaced by Taylor Stanley, who performed extraordinarily well (much improved over his portrayal two years ago), as did Lovette, again. And the two worked together very well – particularly remarkable since I understand that they had very little time to rehearse together. But with respect to the balcony scene partnering – that degree of risk-taking wasn’t there.

Lovette and Finlay were not the only ones to deliver superlative performances.

The entire ‘team’ of Mercutio, Benvolio, and Tybalt debuted Saturday afternoon, and danced as if they’d been playing these roles for years. Harrison Ball played Mercutio with vitality and appropriate braggadocio, and Harrison Coll’s Benvolio was equally, but somewhat more cautiously, boisterous. Their individual strengths, however, were matched by their compatibility when they shared the stage. They worked very well together, and were as seamless together as Lovette and Finlay were. Sebastian Villarini-Velez was not as flashy a Tybalt as others in the role, and was somewhat less nasty and self-inflated – which fits Martins’ conception of the role.

But someone needs to fix the moment when Tybalt stabs Mercutio. In three performances this year, I never saw Tybalt’s dagger or sword actually connect with, or look like it connected with, Mercutio’s body. At each performance Mercutio’s fatal injury seemed to have been spontaneously generated.

As Lord and Lady Capulet, Ask la Cour and Rebecca Krohn significantly improved their portrayals from the previous week. Lady Capulet here is a much less volatile, but more nuanced role here than it is in the MacMillan version, and Krohn makes the role believable. La Cour has tough shoes to fill – the original Lord Capulet in this production, Jock Soto, was unforgettable. But his portrayal on Saturday was far superior to his portrayal the previous week. Russell Janzen, who debuted last week as Paris, gave a particularly remarkable performance. In this production, Paris has a distinct personality – he’s a creep. But Janzen, who could just as easily have portrayed Romeo, gave Paris an appropriate air of nobility. His was by far the most distinctive and memorable Paris I’ve seen. As the Prince of Verona, Joshua Thew, who also debuted in his role last week, did a fine job as well, and was less flamboyant (but also less dramatic) than last week’s other debut in the role, Silas Farley. And Gwyneth Muller was a noteworthy Nurse, every bit as fine a portrayal as I’ve seen by other dancers on other occasions.

Except for Krohn, la Cour, and Janzen, each of these dancers is a member of NYCB’s corps.

Saturday’s entire performance was a moving visual and emotional experience. But Act II was particularly extraordinary, and Lovette’s Act II is nothing short of miraculous – clear as crystal; an emotional tour de force. Yet it all looked real, not melodramatic.  And the crypt scene was as draining to watch as any I’ve seen, in any performance, in any production.

When the final curtain calls ended, I exited the theater interior with a generally hushed set of audience members. But two bunheads who looked to be about 15 years old couldn’t contain themselves. I overheard one say to the other: “That was amazing.” The other girl responded: “That was absurd it was so amazing. It was insane amazing.” Exactly.

And as if to punctuate the occasion, when we all walked outside, the sky was filled with white confetti.

Now where did I put that crystal ball?