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Richard Penberthy
New York City Ballet (NYCB)
Performance Reviews
Lincoln Center
New York City Ballet
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New York City Ballet - Romeo + Juliet

by Richard Penberthy
May 5, 2007
Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc.
140 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023

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New York City Ballet
New York City Ballet (office)
New York State Theater
20 Lincoln Center
New York, NY 10023

A Ballet in Two Acts

This new ballet, choreographed by NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins, is nearly upstaged by everything that surrounds the dancing – the score, the scenery, the costumes, the technical machinery, and the lighting. The production is huge, exceedingly colorful, and, ultimately, sophisticated. If the "willing suspension of disbelief" applies to drama, it applies in spades to dramatic ballet. This is not a piano ballet, not a pure movement dance, but a retelling, a reinterpretation of William Shakespeare's "THE MOST EXcellent and lamentable tragedie OF Romeo and Juliet" (sic, 1599 title page). What makes it successful and remarkable is that it captures inexorability. It makes emphatically clear, through dance, that there exists the imperative that tragedy shall overwhelm two adolescents who, set up by their privileged childhoods as the apparent heirs of their families' nobility, believe they can confront and defy expectations.

A lover of music will point out that Sergei Prokofiev's score got there first, of course, the inexorability of the thing…. But the music impels the dance, it does not create it – that is left to the choreographer and the dancers. And, yes, the score is familiar and epically popular among music lovers. The orchestra under the baton of guest conductor David Briskin was outstanding.

Danish painter Per Kirkeby's set comprises backdrops and a most versatile, adaptive representation of a building. As the curtain rises, the audience sees, centered stage rear, the façade of what might be a mausoleum, or a jail, or a charnel house. It is of large, dressed stones, with a coarsely-brushed, vaguely Greek-key frieze. Two tiny mullioned windows repeat the plus sign, reference to the ballet title, Romeo + Juliet. (That the plus sign is used rather than "and" or an ampersand is meant to be pondered over a bit – it may be simple arithmetic as in 1 + 1 = 2, or in this case, Romeo + Juliet =…. It could as well represent Friar Laurence, or sacrifice.) This smallish-looking building will during the course of the ballet; divide in half, each half moving back and forth, and sideways. It will reveal an interior, as if it were the entryway to a building; it will become the back wall of a ballroom; it will (shuffling into zig-zag conformation) become the balcony; it will become the friar's cave; and it will end up as the walls of the Capulets' cemetery, surrounding Juliet's (and eventually Romeo's as well) bier. Perry Silvey was responsible for technical design. The full-height and stage-wide backdrops are equally impressive. The inventory of these – there are many and every one is astounding – includes pale pink with blood-red slashes of color, the echo of the Greek-key frieze but with the letters of Juliet's name intimated (imagine emphasizing the squared-off forms of the J, U, L), one in Romeo's signature color, pale teal, but with his nemesis Tybalt's colors, yellow and black, slashed across it. They seize the imagination.

Kirsten Lund Nielsen collaborated with Mr. Kirkeby on the costumes, and unsurprisingly, their design and color and combinations onstage are inextricably bound into the telling of the tale. The simplest observation is that the Montagues' (Romeo's family) colors are greens and related colors and that the Capulets' (Juliet's) are flame colors. The ballroom guests' costumes are much like those in the old, old Broadway "Camelot" (worth looking up) but with these two artists' wonderful sense of surprise – patterns painted on capes, ersatz panne velvets and taffetas and cloth-of-gold, but with dyes that practically phosphoresce in the changing lighting schemes. The large corps that do the fighting (fight scenes were coached by Rick Washburn and Nigel Poulton) are in costumes that allow for fencing, though capes figure into the contests. Juliet's costumes are simple and pale.

The lighting is spectacularly conceived, yet it is subtle. From the opening curtain it seems as though we are looking into tragedy itself – an implied rather than an actual charcoal atmosphere – perfect for this tale, and brilliantly accomplished. Downlighting, mottled effects, and the color schemes that pick up and highlight the magical dyes on these costumes are wonderfully thought out: very fine work from Mark Stanley.

The dance: Long narrative ballets involve prologue, sometimes prologue before almost every scene, before you get to the actual dancing. The ballet opens to a street scene ("the street wakes up" – from Prokifiev's own characterization of this portion of the movement) in Verona, where the Montagues and Capulets exchange insults and end up in a full scale rumble. The Prince of Verona arrives on the scene and threatens banishment unless they end their feud. As to dance per se in this first scene, Romeo Montague (Robert Fairchild) and Tybalt Capulet, cousin of Juliet (Joaquin de Luz) have a disagreement, choreographically realized, and Benvolio (Antonio Carmena) and Mercutio (Daniel Ulbricht) (both Montagues) show off high spirits and leaps. But truth told, after all it seems a longish sword fight. It is well done, but there is not a scintilla of "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" heart-stopping swordsmanship. Consider it prologue. Prologue has its uses, and everyone performed the unspoken word well, fully capable in dramatic gesture and expression for this necessary telling of the story.

The wonder of the dance however, comes in those moments that crystallize emotion. And, whether in conversation with her parents Lady and Lord Capulet (Darci Kistler and Jock Soto, guesting), or in solo or partnered work, Juliet (Sterling Hyltin) was outstanding. Ms. Hyltin made us believe in her adolescence. With exquisite dance technique combined with dramatic expression and emotive posture, she was simply excellent.

Robert Fairchild danced well throughout, but he truly shone when partnering his Juliet. Their pas de deux in the garden beneath Juliet's balcony is lush with exalted love. Romeo's carrying Juliet while facing her – cradled yet apart, the better to appreciate her beauty – seems new dance vocabulary, or a new and strong interpretation of old. It is emotionally startling, affecting. (A huge appreciation here to Mr. Martins for these moments.)

This production was an immense undertaking, with pages of credits and thanks – set construction and painting, costume fabric paint, dye treatments, millinery, specialty boots and shoes, armor and sword belts, gloves, fight training, and on and on. Take the time to read the program.

This is a ballet that will have a long life, and years in the future, the garden pas de deux will be excerpted and performed. It is also a new ballet, just premiered this month. Ms. Hyltin has set the bar very high for dramatic interpretation. Most of the men – so far – are given to posturing instead of taking on the actor's mantle, and that's fine for most ballets. It seems that this ballet demands more. It is a great strength of New York City Ballet that the company and its ballets grow and mature through performance. Champagne anyone?
Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild in NYCB's Romeo + Juliet

Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild in NYCB's Romeo + Juliet

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Kolnik

Sterling Hyltin and Joaquin de Luz, Darci Kistler and Jock Soto in NYCB's Romeo + Juliet

Sterling Hyltin and Joaquin de Luz, Darci Kistler and Jock Soto in NYCB's Romeo + Juliet

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Kolnik

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