One of the great pleasures for dancers is the opportunity to return to a beloved role and discover new aspects of it. The experience is doubly sweet for dancers who originated roles they can call their own. For principal dancers Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild this season holds such promise. In February New York City Ballet presents six performances of Romeo + Juliet, the Company's full-length ballet of Shakespeare's tragic love story, staged by Peter Martins in 2007.
Martins choreographed the roles of the doomed lovers on Hyltin and Fairchild, who performed them at the ballet's world premiere and every season the work has been presented since. This winter they will take the stage as Romeo and Juliet once again, a prospect both dancers happily anticipate.
"This is a role I love," says Hyltin. "I lose myself more in a tragedy than in the stories in happier ballets." Adds Fairchild, "I've always felt comfortable with this character. I'm a sensitive guy and kind of a sucker for love."
Rewind back to 2007. In a company where full-length story ballets are still a rarity, Romeo + Juliet was conceived from the get-go as a modern take on a ballet classic. "I wanted to do it in a different way," Martins said at the time.
The story is presented in a clear, tight manner with no extraneous characters, scenes or sets. A large rectangular structure, designed by the Danish artist Per Kirkeby and painted to look like gray stone, serves as the ballet's central piece of scenery, revealing a set of stairs for the balcony scene and opening to display a bed and curtains for Juliet's bedroom. Repeats were pruned from Sergei Prokofiev's wildly romantic score to move the action along.
Most notable was Martins' decision to cast the characters as Shakespeare wrote them, with Verona's love-struck teenagers portrayed by young dancers instead of the seasoned Company principals or world-renowned performers many productions use.
Hyltin, a coltish soloist in her fourth year with the Company, and Fairchild, a boyishly handsome first-year member of the Corps de Ballet, fit the bill. In fact, none of the dancers cast as Romeo and Juliet that first season were older than their early 20s.
Looking back, Hytin and Fairchild marvel at the freedom Martins gave them in shaping their characters. Hyltin recalls arriving at the studio each day with an idea for how Juliet should react or approach a scene. "It was an exciting building process in which I'd say 'how about this?' and he'd say 'that's great, but add this to it,'" she says.
As preparation both dancers read, and re-read, the play, which they had studied in school, searching for details to bring their characters to life and amplify the choreography. For additional preparation Fairchild watched Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 film, a ritual he still observes on nights before he dances Romeo.
His favorite acquired skill was learning to wield a sword for the climactic fight scene between Romeo and Tybalt. Specialists in theatrical weapons were brought in to coach the male leads, imparting advice on dueling, thrusts, even death twitches. "The swords were dull, but you wouldn't want to mess with the choreography and hurt somebody," Fairchild says. "You never take your eyes off the other person's eyes. It's like partnering."
Romeo + Juliet is, of course, a love story, and the dancers say partnering is the choreography's most formidable challenge. The breathtaking lifts, turns and catches in mid-air that thrill an audience demand split-second timing and absolute trust between the two dancers. Prior to Romeo + Juliet, Hyltin and Fairchild rarely performed together, but the two have since developed a celebrated partnership in works such as Balanchine's Who Cares?, Duo Concertant, and Apollo, and Martins' Swan Lake and Hallelujah Junction. "Robbie and I had to really hone in on each other early on because the partnering was so difficult," Hyltin says. "But now we hear music the same way and come together at the exact same moment; I attribute that partnering instinct to Romeo + Juliet."
Hitting the five-year mark since the ballet's premiere offers Hyltin and Fairchild an opportunity to look back on the ways they've grown in their roles and developed as artists. They agree that they're more secure in the ballet's technique. "It's fun to come back and go wow: I can't believe we had such a hard time with that last time," Fairchild says.
Acting challenges that could once overwhelm no longer terrify, though new ones crop up. In her first season, Hyltin agonized over how to confront death convincingly in the scene where Juliet discovers Romeo's body and kills herself. This season her concern is imparting a sense of discovery upon seeing Romeo for the first time. "Robbie and I know each other so well now; the meeting process in the ballet has become harder to portray," she says.
Much of what the two dancers bring to their roles now is the artistry and performance skill that come with experience in dancing, storytelling and time spent on stage, such as knowing how to project an emotion to the upper rings as easily as the orchestra and being confident that a gesture is the right one as opposed to thinking it might be.
Five additional years of living have also deepened the ways they interpret their characters. "I've been able to relate to Juliet more and more as I get older," Hyltin says. "Love and being hurt and all those beautiful things that come with life that you haven't quite experienced when you're 15: I think I can commiserate more with her now than when I was younger."
Adds Fairchild, "I feel like I grew up with this role. I'm not saying it defined me, but I feel a real attachment to it."
Terry Trucco writes frequently about the arts and travel.