"Never underestimate youth,” says Peter Martins, who in his 37 years with New York City Ballet has seen more than a few young dancers achieve early stardom. Martins’s innovative new production of Romeo and Juliet, which premieres on May 1 at the New York State Theater, is a departure both for him as a creative artist and for its casting.
NYCB’s ballet master in chief has looked outside the company’s long roster of dancers for a Juliet glowing with the blush of youth: Instead of a NYCB principal, the role will be danced by a 16-year-old student in the company’s school.
Impetuous and passionate, the Juliet of Shakespeare’s play is still a young girl. “My child is yet a stranger in the world; She hath not seen the change of 14 years,” says Lord Capulet. Yet when the play is translated to ballet, often the role is the prerogative of a leading dancer who is twice Juliet’s age. “With all respect to the Romeo and Juliets that I have watched in my lifetime,” says Martins, “they all have something to say, but it always bothered me that I saw a grand, great ballerina being praised for being able to portray a 14-year-old. I say, ‘Why not the real thing?’”
Martins found “the real thing” at School of American Ballet, the venerable training facility associated with NYCB. Callie Bachman, an SAB student since 2003, is rehearsing the role of Juliet along with three classmates. Being tapped for such a major role is thrilling and a little terrifying. “In the beginning, rehearsals were nerve-wracking because I had never worked one-on-one with Peter before,” says Bachman. “It was intimidating at first. But he has been great to work with.”
The creative process has involved more give-and-take than young dancers are often accustomed to, with Martins proposing steps and the dancers trying to execute his vision. “We’ve been experimenting a lot and doing new steps that haven’t really been done before,” says Bachman. “Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s really fun no matter what.” Working with younger dancers has been different for Martins, too. “They are all exceedingly polite and courteous,” says Martins. “And there is a reverence that I am not quite used to. It’s very apropos for the role.”
Bachman’s Romeo is Robby Fairchild, 19, currently in his first year as a corps dancer with NYCB. “The Romeos are a little bit older and there is a practical reason for that,” says Martins. “Romeo has to partner a girl. It is still a ballet. It is difficult to find 16-year-old boys who could handle that. They need to be a little stronger, a little more mature.”
Both dancers stress the importance of conveying the emotional journey of their characters and the depth and desperation of the love between them. Bachman and Fairchild are preparing for their roles by reading the play, listening to the music, watching the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli film (which features teenaged actors) and studying notes—including an in-depth analysis of the characters and an overview of the story—that Martins has given them. Fairchild’s older sister Megan, a principal with NYCB, gave him his copy of the play and a DVD of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in The Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet. Nureyev’s could be an intimidating interpretation to follow, but Fairchild says he doesn’t plan on comparing himself to anyone else. “The choreography is completely different,” he says. “And I’m focusing on the role itself. I feel a little more comfortable with it being a story ballet, because it’s not me. It’s Romeo. You can hide behind the character a little bit and be him instead of yourself. It’s less scary.”
Martins acknowledges that there are risks involved in resting an ambitious new production on the shoulders of untested dancers. “You can imagine my whole idea of having a 16-year-old student portraying Juliet is nervous-making,” he says. “Because although I know that the people I chose are perfectly capable technically as dancers to do it, I also knew that I wanted this pure innocence to emerge. What I didn’t know, and still to a degree do not know, is whether they will be able to carry the whole show. I would say that I still have faith that I will get what I had hoped for.”
Fairchild, for one, is excited. “I look forward to every single rehearsal,” he says. “If it’s not on the schedule, I get kind of bummed. It’s just so much fun, creating a whole new ballet.”
The casting is not the only innovation in Martins’s production. To create a unique look for the sets and costumes, Martins turned again to Danish painter Per Kirkeby, who also designed the NYCB production of Swan Lake. “He is what you might want to call an abstract painter, although he is able to be very Romantic,” says Martins. “And this is a neo-Romantic rendition of Romeo and Juliet.” Inspired by the multifunctional set piece painter Georges Rouault designed for Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, Martins asked Kirkeby to create a set piece that could be transformed before the audience’s eyes. The result is one all-encompassing unit that changes from a building in a Veronese street scene into a bedroom, ballroom, balcony, garden, chapel and ultimately a tomb. “What I didn’t want was black curtains coming down as there was a scenery change in the back. When you hear all the noise, it kills the magic,” says Martins.
The scene changes will take less than a minute, enabling Martins to streamline the Prokofiev score. With the elimination of one of the customary two intermissions, Martins’s Romeo and Juliet has an estimated running time of two hours and 20 minutes, far shorter than the three hours most productions last. “I have tried to be very respectful of Prokofiev’s musical intentions and the integrity of the score,” says Martins. “I have not eliminated any music. I carefully studied the score and came to realize that music written for scenery changes was basically music that you either had already heard or would hear later on.”
The new production is part of the company’s ongoing tribute to Lincoln Kirstein, who cofounded SAB and NYCB with Balanchine. “Lincoln always talked about continuation,” says Martins. “You are a young dancer, you become a principal dancer, you hand over your knowledge to the next generation and life goes on. It’s a cycle. I think this Romeo and Juliet is very much about that.” That thought may have led Martins to cast Jock Soto and Darci Kistler, both teachers at SAB, as Lord and Lady Capulet. “When I asked them if the two of them would consider becoming Lord and Lady Capulet, at first they were somewhat taken aback,” says Martins. “Jock is retired, but Darci is still dancing. But now that we have choreographed a whole section, they are engaged and want to do it very much. And I think that is very much in Lincoln’s spirit.”
The ballet represents a progression for Martins. In his productions of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, he was careful to pay tribute to the traditions of Balanchine, Petipa and Ivanov. With Romeo and Juliet, he has felt free to do his own thing. “I’m having the time of my life,” he says. “I love the concept, the music is sublime—perhaps the best thing he ever wrote—and I love my dancers. I am thrilled to be walking into a studio every day. It’s really an up moment for me.”