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Verona Story

The New York City Ballet reinvents Romeo and Juliet.

Jun 11, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 37 • By PIA CATTON
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Narrative ballets aren't really designed to make you think. They're more about delivering the works--from dazzling pointe work onstage to waterworks pouring from the eyes of sentimental fans. Even when a choreographer transposes a piece of literature to the stage, any grappling with the text tends to get buried under spectacle.

But New York City Ballet's Peter Martins took a different approach in his new production of Romeo and Juliet, which premiered May 1. By breaking with ballet traditions, he created a streamlined version that encourages critical thinking about the play.

When it comes to Romeo and Juliet, American audiences are probably most familiar with the 1965 production by Sir Kenneth MacMillan, which American Ballet Theater performs rapturously well. Operatic in scale, this version is long on make-me-swoon romance and heartbreak. If the MacMillan production is opera, then the Martins is off-Broadway. At City Ballet, the story is told in lean, minimalist terms: The ballet is reduced to two acts. Romeo's infatuation with Roseline is cut out. The backdrops are vibrant, abstract paintings of the Danish artist Per Kirkeby instead of trompe l'oeil scenery.

In casting the title roles, Martins gave the honors to some of the company's youngest talents. Out of four casts, the most experienced Juliet, Sterling Hyltin, was promoted to principal dancer on May 8 after having been a soloist for little more than a year. (By contrast, the traditional approach is to cast veteran dancers who have the stage and life experience to bring the house down.) But here, even Friar Laurence and the Nurse are lookers. Two of the most handsome men in the company, Nikolaj Hübbe and Ask la Cour, alternated the role of the Friar. The Nurse was danced by slim, attractive gals in the corps de ballet, including Georgina Pazcoguin and Amanda Hankes.

Beyond that, nonessential workers have been eliminated. There are no Montague parents, no extraneous passers-by in the market. The feud is communicated by two gangs of equal numbers of boys and girls from the corps. They make merry in the square, then advance on each other with a linearity that looks inspired by Jerome Robbins.

The set, designed by Kirkeby, is reduced to a rectangular, movable unit painted to look like gray stone, which defines every scene. It slides into different shapes in open view with the help of hidden stagehands. The ballet opens in front of these stony walls that suggest a public space. With the addition of curtains, it becomes Juliet's room. When a cross and an archway appear, it becomes the Friar's cell. And in the end, its walls become the tomb.

This pared-down version gives the viewer room for the imagination. By taking star power out of the equation, Martins gives us two young adults (the ages range from 23 to 18), not a marquee couple. With Kirkeby's jagged abstractions in the background, the visuals reinforce the dramatic tension rather than spelling out the settings for each scene. All of this allows a subtle aspect of the play to emerge: In this version, we witness the failure of a community, not just a doomed love affair.

One of the most significant failures in the play, as Allan Bloom wrote in Love & Friendship, is that of the Prince, who cannot control the fighting: "In Italy, the code of the clan reasserted itself as a result of the feebleness of the political rulers. The too gentle or merciful character of the princes is what Machiavelli blames and Shakespeare depicts," wrote Bloom.

In the ballet, the Prince, played by the majestic Albert Evans, makes a showy entrance when his subjects are at swords, and another after Tybalt's death. But as Evans's movements indicate, it's puffed-up power; more strut than stuff. In a deft choreographic decision, the Prince (and others) come to the tomb at the finale. Here, the Prince sees, and we remember, the effect of his mistakes.

The Friar also rushes to the tomb in the final tableau. And at that point, a younger fellow in the role makes some sense. The Friar Laurence--though he has good intentions--is, in the end, not all that wise. And maybe he's not all that old, either? The dialogue in the play suggests that Romeo perceives him as old; but when you're 14, a 30-year-old seems ancient.

Part of Bloom's analysis emphasizes the Friar's strategy for a cease-fire: "Friar Laurence tries to use a pair of rare and beautiful love birds as the means of restoring civil peace. But only their destruction permits the peace of death to descend over the two families, whose only heirs disappear." Add it all together and here's a young pacifist with a wide assortment of drugs who chooses to help two teenagers rebel--albeit through marriage--instead of alerting their parents or the authorities. Any wonder it turns out a tragedy?