Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Top Five Quibbles with Romeo + Juliet

Yes, it's a ballet listicle! • It's not like I want to pile on Peter Martins, but after seeing his 2007 Romeo + Juliet at New York City Ballet again last night, I feel compelled on behalf of the dancers, pouring their hearts out onstage (particularly Tiler Peck and Zachary Catazaro as the title pair), Prokofiev, Shakespeare, and the entire audience. The story and score are so strong that you'd think it would be difficult to fail... mmm, nope. Some reasons why:

Lazy choreography. My main objection to Martins' version is the flaccid choreography. The ballroom scene, so charged by the political situation and the pompous music, could not be more rudimentary. Literally, a bunch of six-year olds could perform it. (Actually, some six-year olds do kick it in the mandolin dance with handsprings and triple turns.) I don't mind the simplicity of MacMillan's version regularly performed in New York by ABT, but it also has an import and hauteur appropriate to the impending tragedies. And it's one thing to make it accessible and relatable, but Martins' is simply boring. (Ironic as I often feel like Martins overchoreographs, making his dancers look inept.) Steps in the many group scenes remind me of beginner ballet class combinations that you could do in your sleep: tombée, pas de bourrée, grand jété... and repeat. To squander such dance talent and the occasion of a captive audience on such blandness is depressing.

The design. Danish artist Per Kirkeby created a simple, probably relatively economical central module that serves as house, balcony, friar's lair, Juliet's bedroom, and morgue. It does none of these well, however. No doubt intentionally cartoonish (because after all, we are sitting in a posh theater), it looks more like a high school theater project, and as I've thought before, something from the Flintstones. The centerpiece sits on a dais reached by three stairs that must be the bane of all the dancers' lives. The little modules wheel apart and together noisily and awkwardly and are sometimes feebly covered by drawn curtains. The only redeeming thing about it is that it doesn't have to be completely moved offstage. The costumes, also by Kirkeby, also point out the obvious fact that it's fiction we're watching. But the hideous primary colors worn by the men look cheap, and the robes worn by the townsfolk look like they wandered in from some Kabuki opera across the plaza.

Two acts. Hey, I'm all for trimming the program length at NYCB, which usually tends to about 2:30 hours. As it is, this two-act version runs about 2:20. It may be somewhat Pavlovian (I like ABT's MacMillan three-act version, if you couldn't tell), but more likely it's that the catalyst that sets off the entire tragic ending—Tybalt's killing of Mercutio—happens after the intermission, rather than just before. It just feels bald and hasty and doesn't let that initial murder sink in properly before avalanching to the end.

Casting. For sure, principal Tiler Peck is one version of an ideal Juliet—young, fresh faced, technically astute, and emotionally expressive. And the relative unknown corps dancer Zachary Catazaro fits Romeo to a T. While his technique is less polished, he is strong and puppyish enough to be convincingly smitten; I have no quibble with his performance. It's just that within the context of the entire company, it's very odd for his wingmen Mercutio and Benvolio to be principal Andrew Veyette and soloist Adrian Danchig-Waring. Both would be completely valid Romeos, so for them to be in supporting roles must be a bit maddening. I get that one of the impetus' for Martins to create this R+J was the onslaught of young talent, besides honoring Lincoln Kirstein's 100th birthday. But the rank structure exists for a reason, and when these rare full-length lead roles come along, that seniority should be rewarded.

The slap. It's just wrong. The dancers are up there acting out sword fights, murders, marriage, not actually killing one another or getting married. An angry gesture done properly would have been fine, not the audible slap given Peck by Jock Soto. It's why we have art. Oh, maybe that's the problem here...

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