NYCB Romeo + Juliet Falls Short

With all of the great rep that New York City Ballet offers, it is unfortunate that the company is going all in this Winter season with Peter Martins’ Romeo+Juliet; of the 43 performances this season, 12 will be of this substandard work. Economics is probably the reason NYCB is dedicating about 30% of the season to the work: it’s an easy sell over Valentine’s Day. I attended Saturday evening and seats were occupied in the rarely filled fifth ring extreme sides.

Audiences witnessed a not so great version of Shakespeare’s classic, not up to the Royal Ballet Kenneth MacMillan standard that ABT performs. Problems with the NYCB production start with the brightly colored, color coordinated costumes by Per Kirkeby and Kirsten Lund Nielsen: Romeo is in a bright teal; Mercutio in purple; Benvolio in blue; and Tybalt in yellow with the Montague clan in green and Capulets in red. Is there any way to turn off the color when watching this? Scenery is another issue. In the MacMillan version ABT performs, transitions from scene to scene are obvious: the Street in Verona really looks like a street in Verona; the Capulets’ Ballroom really looks like a ballroom of a powerful Lord.

The backdrops in the NYCB version are strange abstract creations, sometimes resembling graffiti from a spray paint can, making it difficult to distinguish the scenes. It doesn’t help that the flow of the work is disjointed at times in this two-act ballet with repetitive steps throughout. A strange segment is the classic pas de trois with Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio. In the MacMillan version, the three dance alone outside the castle where the ball festivities take place, just before they crash the party. In the Martins version, the dance seems to take place inside the ballroom with all of the attendees ignoring the festive dancing. In the MacMillan version, Act I ends with the balcony scene, a dramatic and fitting end to the act. In Martins version, after the balcony scene, there is a villager dance and a jester dance with young School of American Ballet students. Although entertaining, neither advances the plot, both serving as filler.

Tiler Peck and Zachary Catazaro were the leads Saturday evening. The two danced with workmanlike quality; the steps were there, performed well, but with little dramatic energy and chemistry. Zachary is believable as Romeo, with a nice line with princely looks. However, he lacks a certain dramatic presence that fills the stage with a power persona. Maybe this element of his dancing will grow over time (he debuted in the role in 2012). Also weak was the Act II, Scene III drama in Juliet’s bedchamber in which Juliet rejects her suitor Paris, outraging her parents. No fireworks Saturday evening as the scene barely registered on the drama scale. Maybe the Lord Capulet slap of her daughter in the original choreography would have added intensity (see below).

Saturday featured great work by Sebastian Villarini-Velez as Tybalt. Unlike other versions, Tybalt has an athletic solo in the Martins version filled with turns in second position and pirouettes to a Don Quixote-type double tour to the knee and Sebastian took full advantage. The Corps member showed off nice turns in second and tours before his death at the hands of Romeo. Daniel Ulbricht, who also danced the role in the afternoon performance, was reliably great as Mercutio, moving with confidence and flair. He had a fine ballroom solo filled with rond de jambe el l’air, saute de basques, and interesting and innovative character turns from second position. He added a number of comedic touches as he flirted with many of the women in between his athletic steps.

To Slap or Not to Slap?

Michael Cooper of The New York Times reports that one element is missing from this years’ Romeo+Juliet version: Lord Capulet slapping his daughter after she rejects Paris in Act II, Scene III. “Company officials worried how the slap would be received this year, given the accusations of physical abuse that had been detailed against Mr. Martins in both The New York Times and The Washington Post, not to mention the growing national conversation about the abuse of women.” Instead, Lord Capulet raises his arm as if thinking of slapping Juliet as she cowers.

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Lord Capulet does not strike Juliet, but subjects her to a barrage of verbal abuse (my modern-day translation in parenthesis):

Hang thee, young baggage! disobedient wretch! (Juliet, you stupid INSULT HERE)
I tell thee what-get thee to church a Thursday (Get your rear end to the church Thursday to marry Paris)
Or never after look me in the face (no translation needed)
Speak not, reply not, do not answer me! (Shut up!)
My fingers itch. (I really want to smack you!)

Although removing the slap makes the NYCB production more true to Shakespeare, I do not see the point in removing it. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is about two fighting families that resort to violence to settle disputes: dead bodies are piled up after a sword fight between the Montague and Capulet families in the MacMillan production (although nobody dies in this scene in the Martins version); Tybalt, enraged by Romeo’s presence at the ball, kills Mercutio in a sword fight; Romeo kills Tybalt to avenge Mercutio’s killing. Brutality is the central theme in this classic and Lord Capulet’s violence directed at his daughter is in the spirit of the work, regardless of modern-day headlines.