Wherefore Romeo?


Many choreographers have tackled Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, that major tale of ill-fated love. But anyone setting a ballet to Sergei Prokofiev’s gorgeous 1935 score has to comply with the composer’s guidelines. This is blood-and-guts programme music. A passage of airy music means Juliet should leap gaily. Whenever a particular heavy melody erupts at the Capulets’ ball, the dancers must assemble for their ominous pavane. When enemies duel, the instrumentation supports the clink of their swords. Every soliloquy has its musical equivalent. I’m not surprised that Antony Tudor set his exquisite one-act version to five less dramatically specific pieces by Frederick Delius.

Because of the airtight nature of Prokofiev’s score, it was inevitable that Peter Martins’s new Romeo + Juliet would look quite a lot like its predecessors—not as magical as Frederick Ashton’s version, not as dreadful as Rudolf Nureyev’s—despite some small novelties, several inventive dance passages, and a few questionable choices (such as Romeo’s surprisingly vicious offing of Tybalt). Ironically, the new ballet feels longer than its predecessors in part because Martins has divided it into two acts. We’re ready for an intermission after the soaring balcony duet, not for the playful next-morning episode with Juliet’s nurse in the town square.

In a few cases, Martins fails to build momentum within scenes. The lovers’ big pas de deux starts on such an ecstatic note that it has nowhere to go, except into more and more flying lifts. You soon tire of the scene in which the Capulets attempt to betroth their daughter to Paris. Her father (Jock Soto) lays down the law, her mother (Darci Kistler) pleads, Juliet (Sterling Hyltin) runs to her bed in defiance, her nurse (Georgina Pazcoguin) comforts her, and Paris (Jonathan Stafford) spreads his hands in that familiar ballet gesture for “whassup.” The yanking and spinning around and falling and running and slapping become a self-perpetuating mini-maelstrom.

Martins’s opening scene dispenses with the usual townspeople. As in West Side Story, this is a city of young people: Six pairs of Capulets in red amble in while six pairs of green-clad Montagues dance. Mercutio accidentally bumps into Tybalt. Swords are drawn. The fight scenes (staged with the help of Rick Washburn and Nigel Poulton) develop terrifically. In them, Martins shows his training in 19th-century Danish ballet; August Bournonville, famed for his rich treatment of crowd behavior, would have been pleased. There’s also a lively moment in the ballroom when party crasher Mercutio (Daniel Ulbricht) pulls ladies, one by one, onto the dance floor, and their gentlemen snatch them back. But the way the guests cluster on the sidelines, leaving center stage to those bounding Montague boys, challenges believability.

The iffiest aspect of the production is Per Kirkeby’s scenery, with its symbolic blood-red side curtains and backdrops bordered in curious free-form squiggles (unfortunately echoed in some of the costumes). The only three-dimensional object—a squat, fake-stone building—calls to mind a small vintage power plant, yet it opens out ingeniously and slides forward or back to reveal a chapel, a bedchamber, an entranceway.

The cast gives its all to an endeavor that the company’s founder, George Balanchine, would never have attempted (too much “acting” needed, too few pretexts for dancing). Hyltin is a lovely, fleet Juliet—coltishly young and so angelic in her many sautés that she might as well sprout wings. Robert Fairchild brings out the dreamy, ardent nature of a Romeo whose backward turns in attitude seem to express a desire to be set spinning by life. Ulbricht endows Mercutio with marvelously boyish bravado and impudence, and Joaquin De Luz’s fine Tybalt mixes hauteur with a violence barely held in check. Pazcoguin plays the nurse as engagingly young and lusty, and Nikolaj Hübbe mimes Friar Lawrence expertly. Bill Clinton graced the audience on opening night. The crowd applauded him heartily, too.

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