A company's corps de ballet is rarely the pool from which title roles are plucked. Yet New York City Ballet seems to buck convention, especially for its full-length production of Peter Martins' Romeo + Juliet. When it debuted back in 2007, the ballet featured a cast of untested corps members and apprentices as the eponymous stars. (A School of American Ballet student was originally tapped to dance Juliet, but she wasn't able to perform due to injury.) At the time Martins, who recently retired as NYCB's ballet master in chief, attributed his casting choices to the characters' ages in Shakespeare's play; Juliet and Romeo are 14 and 19, respectively. Also, he remarked, "Never underestimate youth."
This week, two young Romeos are stepping up from the company's corps. Harrison Coll made his debut on February 13, opening night, alongside principal Sterling Hyltin (the original Juliet in the production's opening night performance back in 2007). Peter Walker follows on Friday, February 16.
Were the two surprised to be given a part normally reserved for a company's upper echelons? "I was called to rehearsal, and on the schedule they just list the names," says Coll. "I thought I was there for Benvolio [a part Coll has played before]. Then ballet master Katey Tracy started the first scene and said, 'This person, Benvolio, and Harrison, Romeo. Ready?' I couldn't believe it."
Walker is more accustomed to the pressure of creating new works than stepping into the title role of full-length classics. (His second ballet for NYCB, dance odyssey, premiered on February 1.) To, as he puts it, "over prepare," Walker has undertaken a comprehensive physical training regimen. "Romeo is very leg heavy, both the dancing and the partnering—you're running around, it's not stationary lifting." He invited his personal trainer to rehearsals to help develop a strength-training program, wore a heart rate monitor to measure peaks throughout the two-hour ballet, and even made some diet adjustments. "I've been incorporating a nutritionally-balanced meal replacement," he explains. "It's not pleasant, but it keeps the calories up and gets it done."
Though Walker and Coll have both danced a lengthy list of featured roles, there's nothing quite like the pressure of such an iconic part, especially when it comes to being there for your Juliet. In Walker and Coll's cases, they're dancing alongside and supporting two more experienced partners. "I remember the first rehearsal when we got to be with our Juliets—I was completely red," Coll recalls. "I was super chatty and so giddy and already in character, falling in love."
Soloist Erica Pereira, Walker's partner, was also one of the originating Juliets of Martins' production (when she was just an apprentice). "I've never danced with Erica before," Walker says. But, he continues, being paired with somebody who had already dance the role "really cuts down on the learning curve."
As this season's Romeo + Juliet debuts, it's impossible not to think of Peter Martins' absence in the rehearsal room. (He recently retired amid an internal investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and physical abuse.) Having graduated from child roles in the ballet to its leading man, Coll remarks with personal bitter-sweetness about Martins not being there: "He picked me for this—he's known me since I was 8 years old." But he and NYCB's other artists plug on in their individual debuts, reprisals and new horizons. "It's been a good moment for the company too, with everything being so confusing," Coll says. "We all came together for this ballet."