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A Tale of 2 Romeos: NYCB Corps Members Get Their Big Break as Romeo + Juliet's Leading Man

From left: Peter Walker, Harrison Coll. Photos by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

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."

Ballet Careers
Gray Davis with wife, ABT soloist Cassandra Trenary, after his graduation from the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy. Courtesy Trenary.

When Gray Davis retired from American Ballet Theatre in July of 2018, he moved home to South Carolina, unsure of what would come next. Last month, just over a year later, Davis graduated from the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy. Today, he's working as a deputy for the Abbeville County Sheriff's Office.

Though Davis danced in ABT's corps for 11 years and is married to soloist Cassandra Trenary, to many he's best known for saving the life of a man who was pushed onto the subway tracks in New York City in 2017. The heroic effort earned him the New York State Liberty Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by a member of the New York State Senate. We caught up with Davis to hear about how the split second decision he made in the subway affected the course of his life, what it's been like starting a second career and what he sees as the similarities between ballet and law enforcement.

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Sponsored by BLOCH
Courtesy BLOCH

Today's ballet dancer needs a lot from a pointe shoe. "What I did 20 years ago is not what these dancers are doing now," says New York City Ballet shoe manager Linnette Roe. "They are expected to go harder, longer days. They are expected to go from sneakers, to pointe shoes, to character shoes, to barefoot and back to pointe shoes all in a day."

The team at BLOCH developed their line of Stretch Pointe shoes to address dancer's most common complaints about the fit and performance of their pointe shoes. "It's a scientific take on the pointe shoe," says Roe. Dancers are taking notice and Stretch Pointe shoes are now worn by stars like American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston, who stars in BLOCH's latest campaign for the shoes.

We dug into the details of Stretch Pointe's most game-changing features:

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Ballet Stars
Megan Amanda Ehrlich, Courtesy LEAP Program

Claire Sheridan wanted to change the status quo. Leading up to the 1990s, she recalls, "there was a 'shut up and dance' mind-set," and as the founder of the dance program at St. Mary's College of California and a longtime teacher in professional companies, she had seen too many dancers retire with no plan for a successful career transition. "At that time, if you thought about education and the future," she says, "you were not a committed dancer. I wanted to fight that."

With the support of St. Mary's, Sheridan developed the Liberal Education for Arts Professionals program, or LEAP, an innovative liberal-arts bachelor's degree program designed especially for professional dancers. She first presented her idea to executives at San Francisco Ballet. "Kudos to that company, because they said, 'This is great,'" she says. "Eleven of the first 18 dancers who started in August 1999 were from SFB."

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Ballet Training
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I'm a college freshman, and my dance program isn't challenging enough. We only have ballet three times a week and a few hours of modern, and my classmates aren't as dedicated as I am. There's a small dance company nearby, where I was hoping to take extra classes, but I don't have a car. I want to transfer, but I feel like I won't be in good enough shape for auditions. —Tara

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