Peter Martins’s "Romeo and Juliet" will not be a surprise to anyone familiar with his productions of "The Sleeping Beauty" and "Swan Lake." Here, Mr. Martins has pared down pantomime as much as he can, and substituted classical vocabulary. He has reduced the two intermissions to one. And as he did for "Swan Lake," he's employed Danish artist Per Kirkeby for sets and costumes.
But here, Mr. Martins has cast very young dancers as Romeo and Juliet, adding sight gags and kinetic punch lines, and sometimes borrowed his gestural vocabulary from situation comedy.
But while casting young actors on the movie screen means at least a gain in visual realism, the distance of the audience from the ballet stage vitiates that advantage. Casting young dancers in any roles as intense as these usually doesn't work because the dancers don't project strongly or meaningfully enough. Certainly neither Sterling Hyltin nor Robert Fairchild, who danced the roles of Juliet and Romeo on Tuesday evening, moved with more youthful authenticity than dancers 10 or even 20 years their elder. Ms. Hyltin's line was beautiful to watch: physically, she has gained in authority since even as recently as last season. But as an actress, she used her face more than her body.
Mr. Fairchild threw himself into the part, and his emotion didn't seem false. But the increased step content Mr. Martins has supplied to the role made me wonder why he hadn't picked a dancer with a more exceptional jump. Mr. Fairchild, however, gave it his all; he danced with skill and freedom. Despite the familiar Prokofiev score, the choreography wasn't derivative of the productions we've seen before. What was jarring about the way the two dancers interpreted the roles, or the way Mr. Martins has designed them for us, however, is that there is little growth in the characters of the two lovers throughout the progress of the ballet. At the end of Juliet's first scene, she is not arrested in a pose of discovery, contemplating her budding breasts and imminent adulthood, but rather exiting gruffly alongside her nurse, who is swatting her on the behind. At the end of the balcony pas de deux, Juliet doesn't fly or float up the stairs; she pads back up, and the scene changes before we have more than a glancing chance to register her standing alone, lost in reverie.
As for the rest of the production, Mr. Martins emphasizes generational conflict by placing the young lovers and their friends in one register of reality and expression, and their elders in another. The young people are distinctly contemporary and much of the time they are dancing prose rather than poetry.
In Mr. Martins's envisioning, Mercutio has become a cutup, the class clown. Daniel Ulbricht executed all his pyrotechnics aptly, but the reconceived role did not tax him in any way except technically; I didn't see any difference between his Mercutio and his Puck. Antonio Carmena as Benvolio was applauded for his manège of jumps, deservedly so. Jonathan Stafford's Paris was a little inhibited; vainglorious display isn't really his thing, although the role doesn't necessarily have be presented that way.
Georgina Pazcoguin went along with the slapstick gags Mr. Martins has devised for her.
But it was the elder dancers whom Mr. Martins presented the greatest opportunities, and they were the ones who gave the performance ballast. Nikolaj Hübbe is a senior dancer in the company, but is a much younger Friar Laurence than we usually see and thus presented the role in a new light. The role presented him in a new light as well.
Darci Kistler was a less haughty and aloof Lady Capulet than we usually encounter. She and Mr. Martins seem to have discovered a subtle and appropriate degree of stylization and distillation in her scenes of grief over the bodies of Tybalt and Juliet. Jock Soto as Capulet was a fitting consort. Albert Evans's Prince of Verona needed a little less staccato flash. Joaquin De Luz was a formidable Tybalt, menacing without being cartoonish.
As for the look of the production, Mr. Kirkeby is partial to scribbles, which are also manifested in Magic Marker colors in the costumes, codesigned with Kirsten Lund Nielsen. There's a unit set, a stoneclad base of a Renaissance edifice that opens and closes to become a ballroom entrance, a tomb, a balcony, etc. But just as important are backdrops that transform architectural elements into abstract patterning, and are flooded with lighting that gives us symbolic color shifts.
NYCB's new "Romeo and Juliet" is a high-concept mis-en-scène, supporting an assertive projection by Mr. Martins of how he believes the balletic classics should be reinterpreted today.