"Romeo + Juliet "
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
May 3, 2007

by Mary Cargill
copyright © 2007 by Mary Cargill

As Samuel Johnson might have said “Sir, NYCB dancing a full-length 'Romeo and Juliet' is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Or maybe not, considering the sure-fire audience appeal of the title, even if a plus sign is substituted for the "and." A choreographer choosing the Prokofiev music has already to some extent boxed himself in, since the result will be more Prokofiev than Shakespeare. The score doesn’t just support the story, it tells it, and the dancers must perform in its shadow. To make an impact, the dancers must not just chew the scenery, they must demolish it through effects large and small. The most familiar version by Kenneth Macmillan triumphs over his often turgid choreography through the dancers inhabiting the roles, through their glances, their shivers, and their whole-hearted belief in their characters.

Peter Martins’ decision to use young, untried dancers was a gamble, because it takes tremendous performances to avoid being a pale echo of that powerful music. This gamble failed, at least in the sweet-faced, charming, lyrical Juliet of Kathryn Morgan and her equally charming Romeo, Seth Orza. They crept around the edges of the music like little marzipan mice, nibbling delicately and diffidently throughout the ballet, and no matter how attractive they were, or how well they did the steps, they were not able to produce a tragic sweep. But Martins’ choreography gave them no support. Romeo entered looking swoony (though there was no Rosaline to indicate that he had something to swoon about) and given to doing turns in attitude front. He kept this up throughout the rest of the two acts; “when in doubt, turn” is apparently what Martins got out of Shakespeare’s poetry. Orza did the best that he could, but Martins does tend to downplay any potential for real drama. The three boys (Orza, accompanied by Adrian Danchig-Waring as Benvolio and Adam Hendrickson as Mercutio) burst in on the Capulet ball and dance their hearts out, while the guests turn their backs, not an effective way to build tension. There was no differentiation between any of the steps the men did; even Tybalt (Tyler Angle, who in a better world would be a natural Romeo) did the same jumps and beats as everyone else. He just scowled a lot, probably because he was not happy at having to dress like a bright yellow ducky.

The mandolin dance had real children, but also no dramatic sense. Prokofiev wrote it as part of a wedding celebration, and the innocent and happy young couple show Romeo the bright future he thinks will be his, until the tragic fight destroys everything. Martins has done away with this dramatic contrast, and a group of young ballet students (the smallest one barely as big as the mandolin he carries) appear out of nowhere in a calculated, gratuitous, and meaningless show of cuteness

Morgan’s Juliet, too, danced as well as she could, but all she really had to do was lean her head back ecstatically and practice her arabesque. Again, the dramatic possibilities tended to be glossed over. Juliet meets Romeo at the very beginning of the ball, and she does her head back arabesque thing, then Romeo leaves, and she seems perfectly happy dancing with the other guests until eventually Romeo returns and she does another arabesque. There is no shiver of recognition, no chance for dramatic impact in this choreography; it seems that Martins reduced all of Juliet’s poetry to the choreographic equivalent of “You are just so, like, totally awesome.”

Even the pivotal scene of Juliet alone in her bedroom, where she has to take charge of her life, lacks the effect of the Macmillan version, where we see Juliet think through her situation while sitting on her bed, and almost physically change, and then in a burst of desperation, grab her cape and run off. Martins has his Juliet run from one side of the stage to another, twisting and turning, curling up on the ground, running back to the bed, doing everything and being nothing. When she finally got the poison, it looked as if she died from the fidgets.

She got the poison from Nikolaj Hübbe, as the Friar, whose brief scenes showed how powerful and effective economy and force of gesture can be. The silhouette of him desperately praying for peace was a much more powerful image than all of the frisky jumping in the world, but it made the rest of the ballet seem even flatter. It was like seeing Sir Lawrence Olivier in a cameo performance of a high school production of "West Side Story."

But I expect most high schools could come up with more imaginative sets and costumes than Per Kirkeby designed. The color coded green and red made the Capulet and Montague townsfolk looked like strings of Christmas tree lights jumbled up, and poor Romeo had to wander around wearing turquoise. Neither the costumes not the set (a square box that looked like a kindergarten had painted to look like Lincoln logs) gave any sense of place or dignity or much individuality to the hardworking dancers. In NYCB’s math Romeo + Juliet may equal boffo box office, but it also adds up to an artistic zero.

Photo of Kathryn Morgan and Seth Orza by Paul Kolnik.

Volume 5, No. 18
May 7, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Mary Cargill

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