Martins introduces the story with a hearty trio for Romeo and his two pals, Mercutio (Daniel Ulbricht) and Benvolio (Antonio Carmena). Romeo seems a little bit dreamier than the other two, but the reason for this, his crush on Rosaline, isn’t evident since the role of Rosaline has been deleted.
With what might seem like a dispensable plot complication Shakespeare actually gave a finely observed dimension to Romeo’s character — his youthful desire for romantic love. Juliet could be just another passing fancy, ennobled by the tragic workings of the plot. In Shakespeare it’s the feud between the two families as much as the lovers’ impetuosity that causes their deaths. Martins treats the social aspects of the tragedy as a side issue; he doesn’t even bother to show the reconciliation of the clans after the deaths of their children.
Martins’s story is scaled down so that it can be conveyed by formal dancing, with conventional miming to move the plot along. You don’t get a sense of the lovers being surrounded by watchful relatives and busybody townspeople. As if to insist that dancing, not drama, is paramount, at every opportunity the bystanders gather into neat, audience-facing lines and do a ballet dance. Without any implication that the love affair is stiflingly public, you can’t fully appreciate the secrecy with which so much of the plot unfolds.
A lot of this shift in theatrical values is shown in the way the main characters behave. The lovers are endlessly rapturous, the Capulet parents (there are no senior Montagues) are melodramatic monsters as danced by Darci Kistler and Jock Soto, the nurse is dithery and unsympathetic (Georgina Pazcoguin), and the other young men are stock types — a pompous Paris (Jonathan Stafford), a sassy Mercutio, a faceless Benvolio, and a Tybalt (Joaquin De Luz) who seemed immobilized in his tubby, bright yellow doublet.
Martins resorts to violence occasionally. Lord Capulet slaps Juliet during one of her refusals to marry Paris. After mortally wounding Tybalt, Romeo throws a cape over his head and stabs him five more times. These purple passages serve as energy boosters, a respite from the story, like the dueling and the dance set pieces.
What makes Romeo + Juliet look like a contemporary work is its casualness about dramatic consistency, its glossing over of the story’s complexities and conflicts, and a slapdash convertible set (by Per Kirkeby) that looks more like a rough granite fortress than the streets and the palazzi of Renaissance Verona. Martins’s ballet rides along on its basic ingredients, Prokofiev’s music and Shakespeare’s play, rather than exploring them.
The question to ask about Boston Ballet’s Giselle is “Why not?” The company took on this production, directed by Maina Gielgud and designed by Peter Farmer, five years ago, and it’s kept its character as a reassuringly standard interpretation of a great classic. What this means for the dancers and the audience is the chance to reconnect with a timeless story — the country girl betrayed by a young man several stations above her who finds a way to forgive him after she dies — and with a fine score, a softly romantic style of dancing, and roles that have moral substance.