David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY; February 13, 2015

Jerry Hochman

Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild in Peter Martins' 'Romeo + Juliet'.  Photo © Paul Kolnik

Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild in Peter Martins’ ‘Romeo + Juliet’.
Photo © Paul Kolnik

Peter Martins’ “Romeo + Juliet” premiered nearly eight years ago. In the interim, much has happened.

In 2007, Martins was criticized by many for casting his new production with young, relatively inexperienced dancers as the leads. To the contrary, I considered it an inspired, long overdue decision – in these particular roles, casting dancers who look age appropriate is critical for a successful, believable portrayal of the tragic couple. And Martins was proven right – Tiler Peck, and Sterling Hyltin, both soloists then, and Erica Pereira, not yet even a member of the corps, were excellent Juliets. Pereira in particular brought unmatched youthful innocence and vigor to the role without being too much the ballerina. The same holds true for the Romeos, all then members of the corps: Robert Fairchild (promoted to soloist in mid-run), Sean Suozzi, and Allen Peiffer. All added a degree of freshness and innocence that this production requires.

The torch has long since been passed. Hyltin, Peck, and Fairchild are now principals (Hyltin was promoted during the 2007 run), and among the finest ballet dancers in the world; Pereira and Suozzi are now highly accomplished soloists. And new soloists and corps dancers capable of dancing the lead roles are knocking at the door. The company is awash in young talent, and is dancing at a level not seen since Martins first became Ballet Master in Chief. It’s been a remarkable rebirth. However, for whatever reason, he has decided to limit the leads for this year’s run to just four pairs, only one of which will be a debut.

Martins’ version of the ballet remains as perplexing as it was at its premiere. Some of it is quite good, including changes in attitude that are intellectually interesting and refreshingly different from Macmillan’s (which remains the gold standard). But much of it, choreographically, is mediocre. And overall, the most painful artistic decision – understandable in theory, but detrimental in application – is converting both young lovers into pure innocents until secular, familial, and religious authorities screw things up. In particular, portraying Romeo as a poet/dreamer for the first half of the ballet converts him into a virtual nonentity, overshadowed by everyone else on stage. None of the Romeos I’ve seen, however well they inject a measure of emotional passion into the balcony scene and the final scenes of the ballet, has been able to overcome this initial irrelevance.

Not surprisingly to a NYCB audience, the production is a stripped-down version of what ballet audiences usually see. There are no superfluous characters; no Rosalind, no harlots, no Lord and Lady Montague, no symbolic death figure to visualize impending doom, and no attempt to populate the town of Verona with a big supporting cast. That’s fine. Free the story from its theatrical constraints and make it more a ballet of the story of Juliet and her Romeo than ‘Romeo and Juliet: The Ballet’. And, not surprisingly too, most of it moves at NYCB speed.

Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild in  'Romeo + Juliet'.  Photo © Paul Kolnik

Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild in ‘Romeo + Juliet’.
Photo © Paul Kolnik

But there’s a limit to how much Martins could eliminate as surplusage and still be true to the essential theatricality of the story. So what he provides is a production that is more streamlined and more crisply ‘balletic’ than other often bloated versions, but which lacks their complexity and choreographic variety. It’s more than ‘R&J-Lite’, but less than a complete, fulfilling production. And the dreary, angst-riddled set and unimaginative costuming, both by Danish contemporary artist Per Kirkeby (who also created the unfortunate sets and costumes for Martins’ “Swan Lake”) don’t help. The multi-purpose set looks like it was done on the cheap; and, worse, becomes a moving distraction. Having it move into position for the next scene before the balcony scene concludes borders on artistic felony.

The ballet opens without the usual Prokofiev overture. Instead, Martins hits the audience with a clean and simple prologue consisting of the ominous cacophonous shriek of sound that in other productions precedes Act III, and a dreary tomb-like vision. Fine so far – a precursor of the tragedy to follow makes some sense.

A change in lighting, and the same tomb-like structure becomes a weathered stone façade in front of which Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio appear. The latter pair are the characters the audience is accustomed to seeing: boisterous, energetic, and somewhat irreverent. But Romeo is not that kind of guy. He’s not interested in horseplay. And since there’s no Rosalind, he doesn’t’ appear interested in women either. This Romeo is no Romeo. Instead, while his friends prance, he stares mournfully, or wistfully, or perhaps hopefully, into space, as if he were looking for or tracking some moving object. Why? Is he looking at the clouds in the sky? For a sign? A swan? The audience doesn’t know, but it does know he is different. And in the crowd/fight scene that follows, Romeo is only tangentially interested. Even the estimable Robert Fairchild, this year’s opening night Romeo, looked lost. An American in Verona.

This characterization of Romeo as an emotionally empty vessel continues through the first Act (with the exception of the balcony scene, understated though it is in comparison to others), until he avenges Mercutio’s death. What happens then is no simple victory in a sword-fight – it looks like an execution. The contrast to the earlier relatively powder-puff Romeo is both breathtaking and jarring, and completely in keeping with Martins’ overall conception of innocence overcome by violence. But if that was Martins’ intent, it’s a long way to go to make that kind of dramatic point.

The following introduction of the remaining characters, is essentially similar to other versions, but misses the mark when it attempts to be different. The point of this comic vignette of a scene should be to demonstrate that Juliet is beginning the physical and emotional development that will transform her from being a hyperactive pre-pubescent teenager who plays with dolls (or in this case, with her nurse), to being a hyperactive pubescent teenager beginning to mature both physically and emotionally. But Martins muddies the message. Indeed, it’s not clear whether Juliet recognizes that she’s beginning to develop physically, or happily observes that she hasn’t yet begun to develop at all. The scene is cute to watch, but it makes no thematic sense.

Daniel Ulbricht and Joaquin De Luz in Peter Martins' 'Romeo + Juliet'.  Photo © Paul Kolnik

Daniel Ulbricht (Mercutio) and Joaquin De Luz (Tybalt) in Peter Martins’
‘Romeo + Juliet’.
Photo © Paul Kolnik

Fortunately, after this disappointing beginning, the ballet grows. Martins wisely eliminates the scene outside the Capulet manse showing the guests arriving for the soiree, instead, opening the third scene inside the ballroom, where the Capulets, including Juliet, greeting everyone as they arrive. And instead of the dramatic spectacle in the Macmillan version of seeing the guests begin the court dance en masse, Martins has Lord and Lady Capulet begin dancing by themselves, then joined by the other members of the family, and only thereafter by the remaining guests. It looks right. Indeed, nothing is more emblematic of Martins’ streamlined concept at its best than the simple pleasure of watching this scene evolve – even if one really needs to suspend disbelief when Romeo and friends crash the party and none of the other guests notice. Seeing Mercutio’s bravura, stop-the-show solo played as appreciative entertainment for the guests rather than a tolerated annoyance is worth the price of admission. Repeating his prior portrayal during the ballet’s premiere season, Daniel Ulbricht danced the role sensationally.

There are many more examples of Martins’ conception when it works. Usually the Capulets are the bad guys. Here, it is the Montague clan that trespasses on a Capulet gathering in the scene that leads to Mercutio and Tybalt’s deaths. Usually Tybalt (Joaquin De Luz) is a drunken bully; here Tybalt is a petulant bully, with a hint of intelligence. Usually Paris is portrayed as an ardent and handsome suitor who doesn’t deserve his fate; here Paris is a creep. Usually Lord Capulet is merely lord of the manor; here Lord Capulet has a sense of honor, decency, and an awareness of his loss of control over his wife, his daughter and his nobility that adds a new dimension to the tragedy on the stage. And even though the corps dancing bears little relationship to townspeople kicking up their heels, the fact that they are really dancing parts of a ballet, rather than being either in-character with limited range of movement or perimeter decoration, is welcome. And perhaps the most intelligent and successful reimagining of all is Martins’ decision in the Mandolin Dance to jettison the wedding dancers found in most other productions and replace them with street urchins (male students from the School of American Ballet) performing for tips in what passes for the center of town.

When I first saw Sterling Hyltin’s Juliet seven years ago, I felt that her portrayal, though gloriously danced, was too refined. In the ensuing years, she’s added compelling acting talent to match her extraordinary innate lyricism and technical facility. She was a believable young girl in the opening scenes, an overwhelmed teenager in love, and a willful adolescent too trusting in her elders to act sensibly. Her presence carried the performance. And credit should also be given to Georgina Pazcoguin, who delivered a marvelous portrayal of the randy Nurse, and to Silas Farley, in a noteworthy debut as the Prince of Verona, who executed as if he really was the man in charge – and as responsible for poor decisions as were the other adults.

But as wonderful as Hyltin and Fairchild are in their roles, it would have been more exciting to have had the leads danced by fresher faces who did not have to act to be believable. Then again, since Martins has demonstrated a particular willingness to give opportunities to budding ballerinas, and in view of the near sold out houses for all the “Romeo + Juliet” performances, perhaps he is contemplating adding more new casts to a repeat run next year.