"Romeo + Juliet "
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
May 6, 2007

by Tom Phillips
copyright © 2007 by Tom Phillips

One thing that Peter Martins has in common with George Balanchine is an eye for beautiful young ballerinas, and boldness in taking risks with them. If the buzz is indeed back at New York City Ballet, as the ads claim, it is almost always about a girl in or barely out of her teens, with technique honed to a keen edge by Balanchine’s hand-picked faculty at SAB, and the angelic air of one who has grown up in the cloister of a ballet studio. The latest of this winning type is 18-year-old Erica Pereira, a company apprentice who leaped into the leading role in Martins’ “Romeo + Juliet” and scored a personal triumph, even with this star-crossed production around her neck.  

The best parts were when Pereira was alone, or nearly alone, on the stage. She enters leaping and frolicking, looking maybe two years older than Clara in the "Nutcracker," showing off her well-turned legs and ample elevation. Later she swoops and bends luxuriously in a series of off-balance, supported turns and overhead lifts with her Romeo. Pereira has clean, expansive lines and a generous arch of the back that looks most spectacular when she is draped in the air above her partner. She manages to be fragile, innocent and voluptuous at the same time. But the test of her dramatic mettle comes in the second part, where she agonizes before drinking the potion, and finally in the tomb where she discovers the corpses of Paris and Romeo, then plunges the dagger into her own belly. Pereira flung herself into it, convincing but never over the top. There was barely a false note in this debut. 

That she was able to pull it off is all the more impressive given the dearth of dramatic development in the choreography, the lack of any consistent style, and the absence of any sense of time or place.  The production is a mishmash, with a moving set that looks like an ersatz Egyptian tomb, and a cast that take their gestures mostly from  “West Side Story.”  The tragedy of “Two households, both alike in dignity” is missing in action, as is “fair Verona, where we set our scene.” Lord Montague — who exists for formal purposes in Shakespeare — does not appear at all, and his clan consists of a bunch of street punks and their girlfriends, who spend their time in shoving matches and catfights with the Capulets. Albert Evans as the Prince muddles through all this confusion, showing up periodically in an ankle-length white robe with a sword to separate the combatants, an impossible combination of Pharaoh and Officer Krupke.  

The rest of the cast did what they could in their one-dimensional roles.  Allen Peiffer, a young corps member making his debut as Romeo, was handsome and spirited enough, but he seemed to tower over the slight Pereira, and their intimacy was hard to perceive.  Peiffer was also consistently outdanced in the many all-male bravura diversions, by his pals Daniel Ulbricht as Mercutio and Antonio Carmena as Benvolio. Craig Hall made a suitably surly Tybalt, but his swordfighting needs a lot of practice before it looks real. 

The gifted character dancer Dena Abergel offered the only Italianate touch in the show, playing Juliet’s nurse in the style of the commedia dell’arte.  Her pratfalls and tumbles were well taken, but it looked odd for her to be manhandled by a couple of hoodlum types from the 1950’s. What’s going on here? Sadly, it seems to be the extinction of style, the death of dramatic context.

The flattest part of all was the balcony scene. In Shakespeare, it builds from shyness to rapture to a reckless scheme of elopement.  Here Juliet simply appears on the balcony, spots that hot guy from the ball below, and dashes down for another dance, not so different from the one they did in the ballroom, or even from the one they do later after consummating their secret marriage. It’s pretty, but it goes nowhere. 

Two and a half hours is a long time to sit without a dramatic arc to hold your interest. There were a few passing pleasures:  Darci Kistler and Jock Soto used all their stage savvy and presence as Juliet’s overbearing parents, and Alina Dronova led the Montague faction of the corps with her usual lively precision.  
Up-and-coming artists like Dronova, who develop steadily through the repertory, seem to inhabit a different universe from the one where teenagers are flung into the spotlight with no seasoning. Erica Pereira is apparently the only survivor from Martins’ original scheme to have the lovers played by students from SAB.  (See The New York Times, “A Year in the Life of a Ballet,” 4/29/07.)  She survived because she is a natural performer, happy in her art and at home on the stage. But one does wonder whether this is really the best career track for a fledgling artist. And one does worry about the other teenagers who went overboard in the course of this titanic project to win new audiences for ballet. Good taste may not be the only thing that was sacrificed.

Volume 5, No. 19
May 7, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Tom Phillips

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