When Robert Fairchild dances next Tuesday in New York City Ballet’s new Romeo & Juliet, audience members will notice several things about his Romeo. He’s poised, understatedly lyrical. He’s an incredibly sure partner, but with a light touch: Even alongside far more seasoned performers (like his sister Megan, a principal he guides through intricate lifts in Intermezzo), he exudes calm. He also looks uncannily age-appropriate for the part, because he’s only 19. The casting may seem unusual—barely two years out of the School of American Ballet, the Salt Lake City native is leading a full production—but in fact it is part of a gathering trend. In the past couple of years, Peter Martins has been actively promoting young soloists and standout corps de ballet members, frequently giving them billing next to the company’s more established stars.
Of course, George Balanchine—who still throws a very long shadow at the New York State Theater, 24 years after his death—was legendary for anointing very young, very lean ballerinas (and, several times, marrying them). But Mr. B actually had only a half-dozen or so of those protégées. The Martins era, by contrast, has seen a broad, substantial movement toward very young talent, starting with a few sui generis stars like Maria Kowroski, and not everyone likes seeing teenagers on the march. At one of the final performances of the winter season, an older woman in the audience observed the cast of Martins’s Friandises: the soloists Tiler Peck (18) and Daniel Ulbricht (23), backed by a large chorus of, mostly, girls. “That is a lot of young women onstage,” she groused in a stage whisper.
Critics often cast a jaundiced eye on these upstarts as well. They rarely expound upon these youngsters’ precocious virtuosity, more often tossing them off as “rangy” or “sprightly,” and tend toward tsk-tsking. Their “concerns” fall into two categories. There’s the physical: the fear that a young dancer hasn’t spent enough time strength-training on three ballets per night, and that an immature, overfed ego could eclipse talent. And then there’s the artistic: An 18-year-old can flit about as Dewdrop in The Nutcracker and do quite well, but can she convey the tension in an abstract Balanchine piece? (There also can be internal issues, like resentment among older dancers and corps members left behind.)
Those concerns are protective and parental, and no doubt come from an honest place. Martins says he’s careful for practical reasons as well as altruistic ones. “I try not to jump the gun, because once you promote someone, they’re there forever,” he says, adding that injuries are only some of the problems that can occur. But if recent performances show anything, it’s that he has been quite judicious about promoting the likes of Peck and Ana Sophia Scheller (another new soloist, at 20). Though “there is no such thing as perfection, some people get close,” Martins says. Unlike many Hollywood kids, these aren’t the sort to show up glassy-eyed to rehearsal, and they don’t need extreme hand-holding when a choreographer calls for improvement. Rather, “they’ll give a smile, and they know exactly what they have to work on.”
That’s also because the baseline skill level among City Ballet’s young stock is simply higher than in years past. On the whole, “the dancers are better now,” says Martins’s assistant, Sean Lavery, who was around to see Mr. B pick girls like Suzanne Farrell and the soon-to-retire Kyra Nichols from the corps. “A lot of people go, Oh, the good old days,” he recalls. “I was part of that, and we didn’t have as many great young dancers as we do today. The quality of ballet everywhere is better, so the schools they come from to go to SAB are better, too.” These vivacious new stars have younger faces, yes, but often also have the training to handle big roles earlier. And if someone is a true prodigy, why not get the highest leaps out of those years of rude good health?
This month’s issue of Pointe magazine has Fairchild on its cover; there’s already talk that Romeo & Juliet will be his “star is born” moment. “It might be a little disappointing for some, seeing these major roles being done by young girls or boys,” Kowroski, who is now 30, says. But sour grapes only go so far. “Then I go, well, I was really young when I did those things, so how can I say that?”