The issues arising from the departure of Peter Martins as ballet master in chief of New York City Ballet keep multiplying. What value do Martins’ own ballets have? For decades his choreography has been an easy punching bag. There were always worse dance makers, but he was singularly prestigious (thanks to his job at City Ballet) while his ballets were seldom interesting.
In the case of his “Sleeping Beauty” and “Swan Lake,” he drew on the work of previous masters.
But “Romeo + Juliet,” which returned to repertory on Tuesday, is all Martins. (That “+” comes from the 1996 Baz Luhrmann movie.) There are worse versions of “Romeo,” but few so perfunctory or thin. Originally choreographed in 2007, Martins’ featured an immediately notorious moment — Lord Capulet audibly slapped his daughter Juliet — that has now been excised. Instead of the slap, Lord Capulet now merely swipes the air in anger. Amid his several showily blustering gestures, this one is scarcely noticeable.
What remains, however, is the gruesome way Romeo kills Tybalt. What on earth impelled Martins to make Romeo suddenly wrap Tybalt’s head in his cloak and stab him repeatedly in the back? Any “Romeo” abounds in fights and deaths, but this incident remains among the most gratuitously unpleasant. It also robs Romeo of audience sympathy.
Martins’ choreography allows Prokofiev’s illustrious score to do much of his work for him. Although most of his dances here look like unfinished sketches — as is true of most of the ballets Martins made after taking over City Ballet — the narrative action they represent is almost always the action Prokofiev’s music has in mind. I don’t find this to be one of the great ballet scores; in terms of rhythm and melody, Prokofiev composed much better dance music in “Cinderella.” But for an audience, “Romeo” is like the best movie accompaniment ever written.
If only Martins had a better notion of how to direct this movielike ballet! Mark Stanley’s lighting is too dim for us ever to feel we’re getting a close-up of the leading characters’ faces. (You keep peering at them through the gloom.) Per Kirkeby’s designs are a weird assortment of colors, styles and periods: Juliet’s dresses are absurdly short amid the approximately Renaissance context; the movable gray central décor looks a mix of primitivist-Minoan and late-medieval; and the costumes’ geometric figures and color combinations are a clumsy bend of modernism and postmodernism. There are several passages in which the stage action makes little rhythmic response to the music’s overwhelming pulse — most obviously in the Capulets’ outrage over the death of Tybalt.
The best sustained dances are for peripheral characters and don’t advance the plot. The production’s sole true hit is a number for five boys (students from School of American Ballet) who turn up out of nowhere. Juliet’s five girlfriends, arriving on the morning of her wedding to Paris, have a dance that has more charm and musical phrasing than anything she gets herself.
When this production was new, Martins cast four pairs of junior dancers — all beneath principal level, and most in the corps — and announced that he wanted their youthfulness to make the story “for real.” It paid off in terms of those young dancers’ careers. (The first-cast Romeo was Robert Fairchild, now a Broadway name.) Yet almost 11 years later, Sterling Hyltin, Tiler Peck and Erica Pereira are still cast as Juliet, and Daniel Ulbricht remains the first-cast Mercutio. Tuesday night’s performance was my first return to the production since its first year: Hyltin and Ulbricht were no less real than before.
Harrison Coll, a corps dancer who made his debut as Romeo on Tuesday, is endearingly impulsive and coltish. It’s to his credit that he can’t making the brutal killing of Tybalt ring true. That savagery is uncharacteristic of this Romeo anyway; it’s just another of the production’s gimmicks.
There are five casts of lovers this year. Three of the Romeos — Zachary Catazaro, Chase Finlay, Taylor Stanley — are principals, as is a fourth Juliet, Lauren Lovette. Although Martins never again took such risks in casting his “Romeo” with juvenile dancers after 2007, he often took them in the company’s central repertory of ballets by George Balanchine. This was one of the Balanchine lessons he learned best.
Supporting characters — Lady Capulet (Maria Kowroski), Paris (Russell Janzen), the Duke of Verona (Silas Farley), Friar Laurence (Aaron Sanz) — have mime gestures that register with more force than when the production was new. As with so many Martins ballets, you think, “This could be good when he gets around to finishing it.”
Andrew Litton, who is conducting 10 of the 11 performances, shapes the score marvelously, even though moments of brass and woodwind playing on Tuesday let him down. From individual portamenti to overall sections, he really sets a stamp on the music in a way we seldom hear in ballet. In several other works, Litton isn’t always quite right with tempo or as a propulsive accompanist to dancers, but here his contribution powerfully enriches a patchy show.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.