New York City Ballet
Romeo & Juliet
May 2 , May 3, and May 6, 2007
Lincoln Center; New York State Theater
Of all the ballet productions of Romeo and Juliet that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing, Sir Kenneth Macmillan’s version remains the gold standard. But Peter Martins’s new production for New York City Ballet is different in conception from Macmillan’s or any of the other classic productions. And though it is maddeningly uneven, Martins’s version is, at times, both innovative and refreshing, and seeing the same scenes with the same wonderful Prokofiev score choreographed through different eyes can be a revelation.
Martins’s very deliberate casting choices compels some initial comment. Much has already been made of the fact that Martins has cast the lead roles with dancers either barely out of the corps, still in it, or not even there yet. Even with his inside knowledge that these ‘kids’ could really pull it off, he was taking an artistic and economic risk by casting relative unknowns in a new version of a familiar and beloved work of art (no matter who seems to choreograph it), and one which has seen as many stars perform it, and perform it brilliantly, as there are stars in the springtime sky.. And audience concerns about this casting were apparent from the moment theses performances began – the deafening silence that greets the unknown leads when they first appear, for example. Moreover, even though Martins’s conception is more distilled than others, the choreography is demanding. This was no time to test novices.
But Martins’s kids pulled it off beautifully. Their collective dancing was superlative; and at times better than that. And although the acting may not have been on the same level as that demonstrated by an ABT principle, less acting was required since these dancers were the characters – they didn’t need to act much to make us believe them.
But Martins’s casting wasn’t just a gamble that paid off. The choice to cast leads with very young, fresh dancers was an essential and inevitable consequence of his apparent intention to create a very young, fresh ballet, making the contrasting ultimate tragedy all the more jarring.
Would that Martins’s unqualified casting success had carried over into the work itself. Instead, this “Romeo and Juliet” can be at times woeful and at other times riveting, at times baffling and at other times brilliant. Not surprisingly for a NYCB audience, this production is a stripped-down version of what ballet audiences usually see, with considerably less “theatre” and considerably more “ballet”. There are no superfluous (for ballet purposes) 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 supporting cast that looks like they might have populated the town of Verona. There are no superfluous sets and props, no superfluous non-dancers planted around the stage, and not even superfluous lettering in the title of the piece (rather than wasting space with the word “and” or the unnecessary meandering of an ampersand, this piece is simply titled “Romeo + Juliet”). 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’.
But there’s a limit to how much Martins could eliminate as surplusage and still be true to the essential theatricality of the story and to the lush Prokofiev score. He couldn’t do a production that was totally lean and mean, even if that’s what he preferred. So what he provides is a production that is more streamlined and more crisply ‘balletic’ than the often bloated versions produced by other companies, but with the drama largely intact and some lovely and intelligent choreography (including, thankfully, for the balcony, bed, and bier) that begs to be inserted into a more opulent, and more authentic, presentation. It’s more than R&J-Lite, but less than a complete, fulfilling production requires. It is Martins-in-the-middle. And the angst-riddled minimalist set and unimaginative and inappropriate costuming don’t help.
The piece 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 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 Mercutio and Benvolio we’re introduced to 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. Instead, while his friends prance, Romeo 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? A sign? A swan? The audience doesn’t know why, but it knows early on that this Romeo is different. And in the crowd/fight scene that follows, Romeo is only tangentially interested. Alas, it is obvious that this Romeo is no Romeo.
This characterization of Romeo as dreamer/poet continues through the first Act, until Romeo takes up sword against Tybalt to avenge Mercutio’s death. What happens then is no simple victory in a sword-fight – it looks like an execution. The contrast to the earlier Romeo is both breathtaking and jarring, and completely in keeping with Martins’s overall conception of innocence overcome by violence. But if that was Martins’s intent in initially creating a relative powder-puff as a Romeo, it’s a long way to go to make that kind of dramatic point.
The scene that follows, which introduces 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. This version 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.
Fortunately, after this disappointing beginning, the piece grows. Martins wisely eliminates the scene outside the Capulet manse showing the guests arriving to the Capulet soiree. Instead, he opens the third scene inside the ‘ballroom’, where the Capulets, including Juliet, greet the guests as they arrive. And instead of the dramatic spectacle in the Macmillan version of seeing the gathered guests begin the court dance en masse, in Martins’s version Lord and Lady Capulet begin dancing by themselves, are 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’s 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 take 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.
Although it would take too long to list them all here, there are many more examples of Martins’s 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 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 (as portrayed with intelligence and sensitivity by Jock Soto) has a sense of honor, a sense of decency, and an awareness of his loss of control 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, or their fellow townspeople, in downtown Verona, the fact that the corps is really dancing parts of a ballet, rather than being either in-character with limited range of movement or perimeter decoration, is a welcome point of view (even though, in result, this very NYCBish corps work has nothing to do with the story, and could just as easily be transplanted into some other, perhaps plotless, ballet). And perhaps the most intelligent and successful reimagining of all is Martins’s decision in the ‘Mandolin Dance’ to jettison the ‘wedding dancers’ found in other productions and replace them with street urchins performing for tips in what passes for the center of town. The young student-dancers who pull this off at each performance (they deserve to be identified: Spartak Hoxha, Jonathan Alexander, Austin Bachman, Joe Gordon, and Ghaleb Kayali) charm the audience out of their seats.
The pros and cons of Martins’s conception notwithstanding, it is Martins’s kids who steal the thunder and provide the indelible memories.
At Wednesday’s performance, Romeo was danced by Sean Suozzi as the nice boy next door. Ardent and touching, Suozzi looked like the dreamer he was portraying, moved with grace, and partnered effortlessly. Amar Ramasar’s Tybalt required a bit more pizzazz, but his performance fitted Martins’s conception well.
But the evening belonged to Tiler Peck. Recently promoted to soloist, Ms. Peck fulfilled, if not exceeded, my already high expectations based on what I’d previously observed her do. Her powder-keg stage presence and high-intensity execution quickly quashed any notion that this young, diminutive, and relatively inexperienced dancer would be unable to carry a full-length performance. On the contrary, her performance was a triumph. Her characterization was everything it was supposed to be – a headstrong, spirited, determined young girl. Whether this was a product of acting or Ms. Peck’s stage persona (which is the same as the role) doesn’t really matter; she was an authentic Juliet. But more than that, her dancing was superb. She squeezed more into her extensions than I thought her body could handle, but never looked hyperextended. She was both lyrical when the choreography called for it, and lightning fast when the choreography called for that. In short, she was in total command. It was a debut to remember, particularly with the knowledge that her Juliet will get even better as time goes on.
Thursday’s Juliet, Kathryn Morgan, does not have the electric personality that Ms. Peck has. But this young corps dancer, whom I had not previously seen (her picture was not even on the NYCB web site when casting was announced), presented a Juliet who was as much a sweetheart as a spitfire. Hers was a kinder, gentler Juliet. Ms. Morgan’s simple warmth, combined with her surprisingly accomplished technique, once again proved the wisdom of Mr. Martins’s casting choices.
Ms. Morgan’s Romeo was Seth Orza. More of a classic “hunk” than Mr. Suozzi, Orza looked a bit less comfortable with being a dreamer. But his dancing was dynamic and his partnering was attentive and accomplished. Tyler Angle, was a wonderfully nasty Tybalt. Diabolical, powerful, and slick as a snake.
But perhaps the most surprising and most rewarding performance came this afternoon. Erica Pereira, an 18 year old apprentice, simply stole the audience’s heart. Though her technique is not as evolved as Ms. Peck’s or Ms. Morgan’s (which is to be expected), and though her acting is not quite on the same level (her face goes blank while she’s transitioning from one theatrical punctuation to another), she nevertheless pulled off a remarkable performance. She did everything that the choreography threw at her, and did nearly all of it beautifully. Her strength now is her lyricism – her movement quality is beautiful to watch, particularly since she is blessed with a classic long-legged dancer’s body that naturally makes every movement sensual. On her, even the disappointing costumes looked good. And when she wasn’t thinking about what she was going to do next, her acting was surprisingly accomplished. Indeed, she pulled off the best “tomb and scream scene” of the three. She’s not a wunderkind, but she’s a delightful young dancer. What a pleasure it will be to watch her grow.
Her Romeo, Allen Peiffer (like Suozzi and Orza, a member of the corps), was a perfect match for Ms. Pereira. Not only did he look and dance the part as if he’d been doing it for years, he seemed well aware that his Juliet might require more attention than would a more experienced dancer, and he provided sure support throughout the performance. And Craig Hall’s Tybalt was appropriately, and consistently, mean.
Mercutio and Benvolio were portrayed on Wednesday by Andrew Veyette and Austin Laurent, on Thursday by Adam Hendrickson and Adrian Danchig-Waring, and today by Daniel Ulbricht and Antonio Carmena. All performed admirably and with boundless energy and technical ability. Although singling out one of them is unfair since each of them was superb, Mr. Ulbricht’s dazzling technique merits special notice.
Martins’s Nurse is more of a randy aunt (perhaps the opposite of the characteristic maiden aunt) than the usual overstuffed nursemaid cum babysitter. Amanda Hankes on Wednesday, Gwyneth Muller on Thursday, and Dena Abergel today performed the role with bawdy enthusiasm.. Paris (Adrian Danchig-Waring on Wednesday, Christian Tworzyanski on Thursday, and Jonathan Stafford today) was no one you’d want your daughter to marry (with the possible exception of Mr. Stafford, who was nowhere near as creepy as his predecessors in the role). And at both performances, Albert Evans was majestic, commanding and decisive as the Prince of Verona, but the characterization was more “chief of police” than prince of Verona. Nilas Martins (Wednesday and Thursday) and Ask la Cour (today) each portrayed a youthful, and somewhat naïve, Friar Laurence.
Finally, as Lord and Lady Capulet at each of the performances, Mr. Soto and Darci Kistler provided mature anchors for the otherwise youthful performances. And at each of the curtain-calls, Ms. Kistler, yesterday’s baby ballerina, seemed to look down at that night’s Juliet to congratulate her, perhaps remembering, with a hint of wistfulness, what it felt like to hear your first ovation from an appreciative and enthusiastic audience, and what it felt like to be so good so young.