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

February 13, 2018
Romeo + Juliet

Jerry Hochman

New York City Ballet began a two-week run of Peter Martins’s Romeo + Juliet Tuesday night with a superb performance by Sterling Hyltin as Juliet, in several ways better than when she originated the role during its 2007 premiere season, a highly promising role debut by Harrison Coll as Romeo, and a splendid role debut by Marika Anderson as The Nurse.

But the most noteworthy development in this incarnation of Romeo + Juliet is a moment that’s been deleted. The slap – Lord Capulet’s loss of control evident by his very loud and very hard-looking stage slap of his disobeying daughter – is gone. Considering the controversy that the moment prompted following the ballet’s premiere, it’s a significant development.

I’ve elaborated upon Martins’s conception of the ballet on many occasions, so I’ll limit (relatively) the nuts and bolts discussion here. Generally, there are some things about it that are interesting, curious, riveting, or brilliant; and there are others that are woefully disappointing or baffling to anyone who has seen and loved Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s version for the Royal Ballet (presently in American Ballet Theatre’s repertoire), John Cranko’s version (resurrected by Julie Kent’s Washington Ballet just this past Wednesday, and soon to be presented by the Boston Ballet), or many of the other interpretations that populate the ballet landscape.

In the first instance (and to get it out of the way), the uninspired and angst-ridden minimalist sets and costumes by Per Kirkeby are to me far more annoying here than his designs are in Martins’s Swan Lake. At least there one might discern a purpose behind them, even if they look weird. Here, there’s no purpose to them consistent with anything beyond being the barest possible reflection of Shakespeare’s story, even allowing for changes of time and place (or even the creation of some universal time and place). And it all looks like something put together on the cheap (a drab, compartmentalized stone wall with costumes in matching drab), with little imagination beyond squeezing as much as possible use out of the dreary-looking set. I’ll grant, though, that the effect of forcing one to ignore the sets and costumes in order to appreciate the unfolding story perhaps inadvertently puts the focus where it should be.

New York City Ballet dancer Sterling Hyltin in Peter Martins's "Romeo + Juliet" Photo by Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet dancer Sterling Hyltin
in Peter Martins’s “Romeo + Juliet”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Martins’s choreography in most respects is pedestrian (very similar movement qualities recurring repeatedly), but serviceable (it doesn’t get in the way). The ensemble dances could be easily lifted from this production and staged as plotless, standalone dances – except the choreography would make the effort look even more bereft of imagination. But there are exceptions. For example, the Act I Ballroom dance, expanded here to encompass what in MacMillan’s version is the scene in which guests (and Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio) arrive and enter the Capulet manse, which Martins develops from a duet for Lord Capulet and his wife to the Capulet “immediate family” to guests is thrilling to watch unfold, and one of the most creative I’ve seen. And there are moments in the various Romeo and Juliet pas de deux that sing – and that are sufficient to overcome the bulk of the choreography that simply doesn’t, notwithstanding the all too obvious complex partnering required. And the swordplay is very well staged and executed. [Training and staging by Weapon Specialist, Ltd.] Unlike other versions, including MacMillan’s, these scenes look reasonably realistic rather than by the numbers – and consequently are considerably more violent-looking. Finally, Martins’s conversion of what is the “wedding procession” Mandolin Dance in the MacMillan version into a lively and appealing dance of street urchins (performed by remarkable young dancers of various ages from the School of American Ballet) justifiably brings down the house.

That having been said, like the sets and costumes, with rare exceptions the focus of Martins’s iteration of the story isn’t choreography-driven either. Rather, there are themes here, abetted by evolving characterizations and the elimination of arguably superfluous characters (like Rosalind, Lord and Lady Montague, the harlots, a death figure, and any villager who looks like he or she might have populated Verona), that are broader than the standard family feud, impetuous kids, and resulting tragedy. In a nutshell, Martins’s Romeo + Juliet isn’t “just” a tragic love story told through music and dance; it’s a story of innocence corrupted by violence.

Daniel Ulbricht and Joaquin De Luz in a prior performance of Peter Martins's "Romeo + Juliet" Photo by Paul Kolnik

Daniel Ulbricht
and Joaquin De Luz
in a prior performance of Peter Martins’s
“Romeo + Juliet”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

It’s no accident that the HBO series Westworld, criticized by many for being overly violent (including a very realistic-looking and repeatedly regurgitated scene of an assault against a woman, albeit a manufactured one), uses as a signature phrase “these violent delights have violent ends.” The phrase comes directly from Romeo and Juliet. Martins here makes a similar observation: violence breeds violence.

Martins’s Romeo, for example, is a poet/dreamer rather than the Montague clan’s son-in-chief, with no interest in the silly horseplay or testosterone testing fighting games that his friends play – or, seemingly, anything else. This Romeo is no Romeo. He’s a puppy – until his peaceful nature is ultimately overwhelmed by the violence that surrounds him. The contrast to the initial portrait of Romeo is both breathtaking and jarring, and completely in keeping with Martins’s overall conception of innocence overcome by violence. And for Juliet, although audiences may be more accustomed to seeing her growth from obedient daughter to strong-willed woman, the violence that surrounds her is endemic: it seethes within in her family, from her father to her mother (if looks could kill…) to Tybalt to that feud, and in the society from which her parents unsuccessfully attempt to insulate her.

The character evolution is also reflected elsewhere – most obviously in Lord Capulet. His power and control are evaporating – by the increasing authority of a much more commanding Prince than is portrayed in other ballet versions (here powerfully played by Silas Farley); by his wife’s relationship with Tybalt, more deliciously obvious here than in other versions; and by his desperate effort to form an alliance with Paris – who, in the play, is a relative of the Prince (it’s imperative that Juliet marry Paris, not just that Juliet marry). The last straw is the refusal of his daughter to obey him.

And this is why the elimination of the “slap” is so unfortunate to me. As I saw it, the slap wasn’t only corporal punishment or an assault on a child/young woman – although that’s what it is. It was also evidence of Capulet’s loss of control, and of the blind triumph of violence over reason.

There are many reasons why the slap shouldn’t be there. Most prominently, it’s not in the play – but there are lots of things that are added into ballet versions that aren’t in the play (e.g., the harlots, roles which some consider demeaning to women notwithstanding the additional featured role opportunities these characters provide). Of course it’s also not considered by many to be politically correct to show corporal punishment and/or a physical assault on a woman even if the reason for doing so is to condemn it. Where it’s gratuitous, I’m one of them. And there’s the connection with certain accusations made against Martins, an issue which I suspect the company would not want to revisit via a stage slap that can simply be deleted (and for all I know, Martins himself may have approved this change). But no matter how good the scene still looks now (and Ask la Cour’s Capulet did a fabulous job coming this close to totally losing it), it’s still only frustration.

Equally significant – and perhaps more so – is the violence that still remains: most vividly, the visualization of Romeo’s stomach-churning murder of Tybalt. Here, Tybalt’s death isn’t just the result of Romeo’s aroused sense of rage or desire for revenge: it’s an execution. After Romeo initially stabs and wounds him, he wraps Tybalt’s head in part of a garment (Romeo’s own cape) so that Tybalt is effectively blind, and then repeatedly and ferociously stabs him in his chest – in full view of the audience.

To me, both Romeo’s violent act and Lord Capulet’s violent act evidence the same thing, were horrific to see, and propelled the characterizations, and the story, forward to its inevitable violent conclusion.

And the slap, just like Tybalt’s execution, left an indelible memory on viewers. In those versions of the ballet where there is no slap (MacMillan’s, for example), Capulet exits the confrontation with his daughter in frustration and varying degrees of rage. Here, in its original incarnation, immediately after the slap everyone else on stage (and in the audience) appeared shocked. But Capulet did too – even more dramatically so. The faces of ballet Lords Capulets who are merely frustrated are forgettable, but I will never forget the look of horror and shame on the face of the “original” Martins Capulet, Jock Soto, when he realized his loss of control had hurt his daughter. The slap wasn’t gratuitous, and didn’t legitimize, much less encourage or glorify, abuse. It condemned it. But it also explained it and put it in a context – just as Tybalt’s killing is seen in a context, and is explicable. And perhaps that’s the part of it that dogmatists really object to.

When I first saw her dance Juliet, I thought that as good as she was technically, Hyltin was perhaps too elegant; too lyrical; too much the ballerina. That’s now changed. Of course she’s still a ballerina, perhaps even more proficient than she was as a soloist eleven years ago. But Hyltin’s acting has taken over, as well as her command of nuance and understanding of where her character fits in the story and in Martins’s conception of it. She’s both victim and instigator, but more importantly, she’s not just a teenager in love. To me, she was in charge of this performance, and she took control of it – in a benevolent way. There was nothing that she didn’t carry off to perfection.

Coll did a fine job with the difficult task of evolving from a marshmallow at the ballet’s beginning into a crazed murderer (of Tybalt, Paris, and himself). His acting will grow more nuanced as he grows more accustomed to the role, as will his partnering, which wasn’t bad, but which wasn’t as seamless or as perfectly executed as more experienced NYCB Romeos (the few that remain on the company’s roster). At one point, for example, Romeo holds Juliet at his side in a horizontal position above the stage floor, with his right arm wrapped around her waist. It’s supposed to be a lovely (albeit awkward) image. Here, however, his grip or arm positioning wasn’t secure, the requisite balance was lost, and one could see Hyltin struggling to keep her upper body from crashing to the stage floor while simultaneously attempting an ecstatic smile. He’ll get better at it.

la Cour and Maria Kowroski, as Lord and Lady Capulet, are beyond reproach. la Couer’s characterization has improved significantly since he first assayed the role, and Kowroski is simply extraordinary in a role that has little dancing per se, but considerable subsurface passion. Have I mentioned previously what an incredible season Kowroski is having? Joaquin De Luz’s Tybalt still lacks sufficient venom for me to feel one way or another about him – he just sort of swaggers, but Daniel Ulbricht’s Mercutio is every bit as energizing (and enervating) to watch as it was when he first danced the role (although he and De Luz flubbed the thrust that would kill Mercutio – I was looking right at it and never saw De Luz’s sword come anywhere near Ulbricht’s body even allowing for much of that moment staged such that the audience only sees one or the others’ back – but they covered it well). And Janzen’s Paris is still the hunky creep he was when Janzen debuted in the role.

But the performance’s revelation was Anderson’s Nurse. It shouldn’t have been – I’ve favorably commented before on Anderson’s abilities as a character dancer (her Carabosse, for example), but this performance was on another level. In Martins’s conception, the Nurse is more than a bumpety-bump who’s comic foil for the rest of the cast (indeed, to my ears Martins has cut several musical “Nurse motifs” from Prokofiev’s score). Here she’s a much more significant character, and Anderson made every gesture thoroughly believable. Marvelous work indeed.

Ultimately, the story of Romeo and Juliet is bigger than any individual performances or the merits (or lack of them) of choreography and sets, or the presence or absence of a slap. And ultimately, Martins’s Romeo + Juliet delivers the emotional catharsis, and the tears, that audiences expect from the story. At bottom, NYCB’s Romeo + Juliet is still Romeo and Juliet.