New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

February 16 and 21, 2018
Romeo + Juliet

— by Jerry Hochman

Witnessing successful role debuts, including successful “returning debuts” (as I’ll explain below), are among the ingredients that make attending ballet performances a joy. After each of the two additional performances of Peter Martins’s Romeo + Juliet that I had the privilege of seeing in the past two weeks (beyond the opening performance that I’ve already reviewed), each of which featured memorable role debuts, I left the theater flying. Considering what it takes to get me off the ground, both literally and figuratively, that says a lot.

In a nutshell, Peter Walker’s debut as Romeo on February 16 opposite the return of Erica Pereira as Juliet was wonderful – both delivered exceptional performances. And in her role debut as Juliet, opposite an extraordinarily improved, seminal performance by Taylor Stanley as Romeo, Indiana Woodward hit it out of the park.

And theirs weren’t the only debuts. During these two performances I also saw superb debuts by Roman Mejia as Mercutio, Christopher Grant as Benvolio, and Spartak Hoxha as Tybalt.

Only an apprentice (and barely that) when she first assayed Juliet during its premiere run in 2007, Pereira was my favorite of all the Juliets then given the opportunity to dance the role – not because she was the best technically, but because, to me, she was the most un-ballerina-ish. There was no affectation to her portrayal, and from my point of view she did everything she was called upon to do right. Most significantly to me, she looked (and was) so young and naturally vulnerable-looking: she very obviously stole the audience’s heart.

In the ballet’s subsequent return to the repertoire, I saw Pereira dance the role once more with a different partner, and the results were not as exhilarating. To me, this was the product of a lack of chemistry with or confidence in (or, more likely, insufficient rehearsal time with) her new Romeo. There wasn’t anything specifically wrong, but something seemed lost. And, inexplicably, she was not given the opportunity to dance Juliet again when it next returned to the repertoire.

Whatever may have been lost has now been found.

Perhaps it was her new Romeo, perhaps renewed confidence (I noted in an earlier appearance this season that she seemed unleashed) – whatever the reason, Pereira’s Juliet last Friday evening was a memorable “returning debut.” If I had to find something to criticize, it’s perhaps a touch of cautiousness as well as an increased air of maturity – both of which, under the circumstances, were to be expected. But these are minor observations. Pereira’s Juliet soared. Coming back from what to me was an unjustified snub takes considerable internal strength. It was a courageous, triumphant performance – and one clearly acknowledged as such by the audience.

And if Pereira found new wings, it was in large part due to Walker’s Romeo. I must admit that when the casting was announced, I thought Walker was a poor choice – he towers over her, and I thought it would be a Mutt and Juliet mismatch. It’s nice to be wrong … occasionally. Walker does tower over Pereira on stage – but perhaps as a consequence, in his hands Pereira appeared both free and lighter than air. His characterization and execution were flawless (he comes across as more powerful than others), and, more importantly, he was an outstanding partner. His was a noteworthy debut.

At this same performance, Troy Schumacher repeated his portrayal of Mercutio. Martins’s choreography requires Mercutio to dance with seeming abandon, and just a little mischievous craziness (ok, a lot), but Schumacher took his portrayal to new heights, without seeming the least bit jaded. And in his role debut, Grant added depth to the role of Benvolio that I had not previously noticed. He made Benvolio not only credible, but significant.

And this was my first opportunity to see Sebastian Villarini-Velez assay Tybalt. Although his characterization wasn’t the most outwardly violent of the NYCB Tybalts, it was remarkably cerebral. Not that he didn’t execute vividly, but to me he looked coldly calculating – like a young Vladimir Putin (save your emails – I have no idea how Putin looked in his 20s). I found it to be quite a thrilling, and unusual, portrayal.

That performance was particularly special. But the one the following Wednesday was equally special – maybe more so.

Woodward impressed me the first time I saw her on stage in a featured role. Later, in the context of a review of Alexei Ratmansky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in February, 2015, I wrote that she has an innate girl-next-door character that is particularly endearing, coupled with growing technical facility and feisty attack (and that, in a way, and although they don’t look at all alike, she reminded me of Nichol Hlinka, a former NYCB principal dancer). “And down the road …” I wrote, “she could be a Juliet.”

She’s a Juliet. It may be nice, occasionally, to be wrong. But it’s better to be right.

Woodward is the only “new” Juliet that NYCB cast in the role this season, and it was an extraordinary debut. Her debut in La Sylphide several seasons ago while still a member of the corps (she’s now a soloist) was memorable as well, but her Juliet is even more so because the role is so much more complex.

When she first appeared in Scene 2 of the first act, I thought she was overly caffeinated – even in the context of this furiously paced production. But appearing hyper isn’t inconsistent with the way Martins presents this scene, and an overabundance of adrenaline goes with major role debut territory, frenetic choreography or not.

But I wasn’t prepared for the character evolution that that took place in every scene thereafter. Effectively, Woodward’s stage immaturity level was gradually (and visibly) ratcheted down to the point where, in comparison to her demeanor in her first scene, Woodward’s actions and responses unwound both emotionally and physically, were expressed more slowly and deliberately, and were executed with softer edges. Other NYCB Juliets do the same thing – it’s essential to the role. But here the contrast was more pronounced and more noticeable, and the result more impressive – particularly for a debut.

And it got still better. Technically, I observed nothing remotely worthy of criticism, and Woodward’s characterization was spot on in every respect, with details and nuances, and phrasing and punctuations, that I would find laudable in any Juliet, much less one in a role debut. In effect, and as contradictory as it sounds, she was feather light and substantially weighted at the same time. I can think of no other way to describe it, but it’s no small trick to pull off.

Equally memorable was Stanley’s Romeo. I’ve seen his Romeo twice before, and, although the second was an improvement, I felt that something was lacking. Whatever that was, there is nothing lacking in his portrayal now. Every gesture had a purpose, and that purpose was clearly communicated.

But more than that, Stanley’s role attitude now seems to have changed. He never came across as the stereotypical (in many other companies) self-absorbed male dancer, but in presentation it often appeared to me that he was relatively indifferent to, and distant from, his partner. Not any longer. In his Romeo on Wednesday opposite Woodward, he clearly focused less on himself and more on being there for her, and the difference is seismic. Everything looks better. It’s one of the most remarkable transformations of stage persona that I can recall seeing.

For example, in the balcony scene, which in this production is somewhat corrupted by the set, every Juliet I’ve seen very carefully descends from the “balcony” to the stage floor. I suspect that this is either because the steps were not constructed with sufficient depth to accommodate rapidly descending pointe shoes, or that the descent is from stage right rather than stage left (perhaps making it more difficult to navigate), or both. Every NYCB Juliet I’ve seen takes this descent much more slowly than, say, the Juliets in a Macmillan production – which is particularly unfortunate since a rapid descent to the stage is critical to convey Juliet’s impulsive haste to meet Romeo. Indeed, this descent was the sole sticking point I had with Pereira’s performance several nights earlier – she came down those narrow steps very methodically, one step at a time.

At this performance (and it must have been rehearsed this way in advance), Stanley positioned himself by the stairs, met Woodward about 2/3 of the way down, reached out for her hand, and then held her hand as she securely, and rapidly, descended down the rest of the stairs. This one gesture, this one image sequence, was so perfect for the moment that it set the tone for everything that followed. It’s certainly possible that other casts that I did not see this season now do this, but that doesn’t matter. For whatever reason it was done, it was a brilliant gesture, and it cemented in my mind the nature of their stage relationship more than the kisses and the nifty partnering that was to come ever could.

And speaking of nifty partnering – Stanley’s partnering, somewhat suspect previously, is now top notch. Both he and Woodward are relatively short in stature, which might have made partnering difficult (see, to the contrary, Pereira and Walker above). But he (they) compensated. For example, there are multiple occasions in the various Romeo and Juliet pas de deux in which Romeo lifts Juliet and then quickly releases her and drapes her over his shoulder (perpendicular to his body) – a sign of ecstasy of course, but also a foreshadowing of Romeo carrying Juliet’s lifeless body in the tomb scene to come. Here, in every situation in which it was a choreographed component, Stanley lifted Woodward over his head and maintained her in that position until near the end of the choreographed phrase, when he finally lowered her and draped her over his shoulder. It may have been an essential modification given their apparent height similarity, but this adjustment worked every bit as well in terms of its hitting the right emotional chords as in other portrayals.

I cannot overstate how impressive Woodward and Stanley were in their preparation, stage connection, and technical and emotional execution.

But, as with other performance, impressiveness wasn’t limited to the leads. In his role debut as Mercutio, Roman Mejia, a relatively new member of the corps (and one with a company pedigree), also made a fabulous impression, dancing with both abandon and finesse. And his pairing with Grant, who repeated his role as Benvolio, was particularly electric. I had not previously seen Spartak Hoxha’s Tybalt, but his portrayal was positioned in between being overly violent and overly cerebral, and it was very finely drawn. Silas Farley’s role debut as Friar Laurence was a powerful as his Prince, but the power was effectively internalized.

Lastly, the urchins who so ably perform Martins’s version of the Mandarin Dance, and who brought the house down with each performance, deserve specific recognition. Keeping in mind that of the five urchins in the 2007 performances, at least three (including Hoxha) subsequently became company members, those I saw this season were Philip Duclos (at the 2/13 and 2/21 performances) and KJ Takahashi (at the 2/16 performance) as the “lead” urchin, and Aaron Plous, Tanner Quirk, Sawyer Reo, and Ian Zelbo (2/13 and 2/21), and Charles Klepner, Tenzin Niles, Quirk, and Athan Sporek (2/16).

One final observation – in my previous review, I noted that Daniel Ulbricht and Joaquin De Luz (as Mercutio and Tybalt) had “flubbed” the moment in which Tybalt stabs Mercutio, since I never saw a sword come anywhere near Mercutio’s body, and there was no immediate reaction to his being wounded. In these two performances I saw the same sequence of events. So the staging this way is intentional, not the “fault” of any of the dancers – but it’s a staging error that should be modified to give Mercutio’s death a measure of credibility.

Thanks to Shakespeare, Prokofiev, and a multitude of choreographers who managed to avoid ruining the story or the score, I’ve never seen a bad ballet performance of Romeo and Juliet. The string continues. More significantly, however, these two performances not only engendered appropriately visceral emotional responses: they created indelible memories.