"Romeo + Juliet "
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
May 1, 2007

by Gay Morris
copyright © 2007 by Gay Morris

According to published accounts, Peter Martins seriously considered whether the world needed another “Romeo and Juliet” before embarking on a production for New York City Ballet. The world probably does not need another ”Romeo and Juliet” ballet, there are already more than enough, but at least Martins’ production has many good things in it. The company premiered the work Tuesday evening as the main feature of its glamorous spring gala, this year made even more glamorous by the presence of President Bill Clinton in the audience. Martins dedicated the evening to Lincoln Kirstein as part of the New York City Ballet founder’s centenary celebrations. It was probably more a convenience than a conscious effort to create a work in Kirstein’s honor since it is hard to imagine Kirstein being interested in a “Romeo and Juliet” that was transposed fairly literally from play to ballet. Kirstein was more concerned with advanced art works than with traditional ones.

But despite the fact that this “Romeo and Juliet” is breaking little new ground, it works well and the dancers obviously like doing it. Why wouldn’t they when the ballet includes forbidden love, dangerous peer rivalries, and young people in conflict with their parents? Being young themselves, it’s a world they can enter with enthusiasm. One of the most successful aspects of the production is Per Kirkeby’s sets and costumes (the latter created with Kirsten Lund Nielsen and supervised by Holly Hynes). They give the ballet its major innovative element. The sets feature a central structure that expands and contracts to become the face of a Renaissance building, interiors of the Capulet’s house, a chapel, and a tomb. Behind this brooding, crenellated construction are drops and side curtains in intense colors of red and viridian green (the colors of the Capulets and Montagues respectively) scratched and splashed with black. The colors and active areas of paint application reinforce the violence and passion of the story while the central structure suggests the brutal, oppressive nature of Verona’s social and political life. The costumes, inspired by fifteenth century Italian styles (think Piero della Francesca’s portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino), also tend to heavily saturated colors highlighted with scratched patterns. Even Juliet arrives at the Capulet ball in red-orange, while Romeo is dressed in green, Mercutio in purple, Benvolio in blue, and Tybalt in shocking yellow. The one jarring element in Kirkeby’s conception is the costume Juliet wears for every scene after the ball. It is a nude-colored dress that is so short it barely reaches the tops of her thighs. Why would she be married in such a garment?

Martins follows the outline of Shakespeare’s play pretty much as dictated by the Prokofiev score, but he has compressed it to some extent, and for the better. The street scenes, usually interminable, are cut to a minimum, which makes them far more effective. For example, the scene in which the nurse delivers Juliet’s message to Romeo includes a single group dance, this one for the Montagues, that features lines of men and women, arms linked, moving in and out among each other in ways that recall folk dance patterns. This dance contrasts with one for the Capulets in the pivotal scene in which Mercutio and Tybalt are killed. Their dance divides the men and women in groups which dance against each other in virtuosic display. The Montagues break into the dancing, with Mercutio annoying the enemy camp by whirling off with one Capulet lady after another. This precipitates the fight that ends in the death of the two men.

The fatal flaw of all full-length “Romeo and Juliet” ballets is the amount of mime necessary to tell the story. After the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, there is only one real dance (the bedroom duet), yet the ballet is only two-thirds over. In addition, there is a good deal of mime earlier in the work. This makes particular trouble for New York City Ballet, a company that does not want anything but dancing, if it can help it. Martins’ strategy is to take a scythe to any non-dance activity that can be cut down. Where mimed scenes are unavoidable, he rushes through them as if they were embarrassments. This especially occurs in the scenes with Friar Laurence where the wedding is performed at a speed that would impress Las Vegas and where, later, the sleeping draught appears from nowhere. Nevertheless, the last scenes, in which Juliet rejects Paris, goes to Friar Laurence, receives the sleeping draught, takes it, is found apparently dead, is entombed, where Romeo appears, kills himself before Juliet awakes and kills herself — all of this is very long.

As for the choreography, itself, Martins does his usual workmanlike job. There is nothing surprising in the duets; they move predictably from polite interaction to lifts that become ever more airborne and sweeping as the couple falls in love. The men’s dances are on the whole more interesting, especially those for Mercutio. And Mercutio’s death is amazing. He is stabbed, falls, and literally leaps to his feet. He doesn’t quit fighting until he is dead; until that moment he seems unstoppable. Tybalt’s death is a different matter. Martins made a serious error in having Romeo stab Tybalt in the back. It cannot happen in this narrative, even by accident. Romeo is not a coward, and on the stage a stab in the back carries the  connotative meaning of cowardice. Martins has Romeo stab Tybalt many times in fury, which may be acceptable, but never in the back.

When Martins conceived this “Romeo and Juliet,” he apparently wished to use dancers from the School of American Ballet in central roles in an effort to make his characters as close in age as possible to Shakespeare’s lovers. But there were injuries of one sort or another, and so the opening night cast featured a company soloist, Sterling Hyltin as Juliet, and a member of the corps, Robert Fairchild, as Romeo. Soloists Daniel Ulbricht and Antonio Carmena danced Mercutio and Benvolio. The only principal among the leads was Joaquin De Luz as Tybalt.

Hyltin, fragile, strawberry-blonde and lovely,  is physically right for the role. She acted well—childlike in her opening scenes and progressively independent as she becomes a lover and wife. She does not have a ballerina’s charisma or maturity, which may be one reason that those last scenes seem so long. We don’t see a depth of character emerge, the adult who understands the underlying reasons for her predicament and the risks she is taking. It may be why, too, it is difficult to view this “Romeo and Juliet” as a tragedy. Juliet is simply a girl caught up in a political situation not of her making or understanding. Her actions are impetuous and unconsidered, making her death unfortunate but not tragic.

Robert Fairchild’s Romeo was more fully formed and more fully expressive. He is a dancer who speaks with his whole body. In his first appearance he made it clear he is a young man already seeking love, and when he danced with Juliet for the first time, he made it equally clear that he has found the person he has been seeking. Romeo attempts to bring peace between the families but in the face of his kinsman’s death he gives into rage and pain, killing his enemy. The moment when reason is abandoned to emotion is the couple’s undoing.

Ulbricht’s Mercutio struck the right balance between humor and hot-headedness, and in his solos he proved he is a top-flight bravura dancer. Carmena’s Benvolio was slightly more modest, but only slightly. He and Ulbricht interpreted their roles as a high-testosterone pair for whom fighting is part of life’s excitement. De Luz exuded evil as Tybalt, despite his small stature, or perhaps that is why this Tybalt is such a menace; he always has to prove himself.  

With the exception of De Luz, Martins saved his principal dancers for supporting roles. Darci Kistler and Jock Soto were Lady and Lord Capulet, Nikolaj Hubbe was Friar Laurence, and Albert Evans was the Prince of Verona. It made for very powerful adult figures. This reinforced the sense that Martins intended the production to be about two adolescents out of their depth in an adult world. It is a slightly different emphasis from other productions, and it worked well as a narrative that should appeal to young audiences even if, in the end, it is a narrative of pathos rather than tragedy.  

Photo of Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild by Paul Kolnik.

Volume 5, No. 18
May 7, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Gay Morris

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