Ballet BC's Creative Team discuss Romeo + Juliet
Since it was first written and performed in 1596, Shakespeare's indelible classic, Romeo and Juliet — the doomed romance of two teenagers from feuding families — is possibly the most famous love story ever penned. Indeed, its numerous iterations include operas, films, musicals, and, of course, ballets. How then does a choreographer come to an interpretation with fresh eyes, updating the timeless tale to resonate in this somewhat fractured era of Facebook, Instagram, and all things digital?
For Emily Molnar, artistic director of Ballet BC since 2009, she looked to Medhi Walerski, an acclaimed dancemaker who, since 2011 had already created three works for the Vancouver-based troupe and not only had understood its DNA, but had also helped shape the company's aesthetic, one that will be on full view when it makes its debut at the Soraya February 29 and March 1.
French-born Walerski, who danced at the Paris Opera Ballet before joining the Nederlands Dans Theater in 2001, was an integral part of the latter company, contributing to the innovative style that brought the troupe world renown. Working closely with internationally established choreographers, including Kylián, Forsythe, and Balanchine, Walerski was awarded the most important Dutch dance prize — the Oscars of dance — the Swan, in 2013. Making his choreographic debut in 2008 with NDT, in 2013, he also created Chamber, for the centenary of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, which was seen in its West Coast debut at the Los Angeles Music Center that same year.
Explained Molnar: "I had always wanted to create a Romeo and Juliet, and Medhi was perfect because he was very invested in relationships on stage. He was also good at crafting a large group work and had a sense of just letting us enjoy the beauty and tragedy of the story, too."
"That kind of range was needed for a full-length narrative," added Molnar, "and he's brought a very interesting signature to the work. He did not try to twist and reshape it in altering the story line, but what he did do was help create a slightly different perspective on the use of time and the psychology of some of the characters."
With abstract works more in Walerski's wheelhouse, he was nevertheless up to the task of creating his first story ballet. Making use of Prokofiev's brilliant 1938 score as a starting point gave him, he said, "an architecture that I could feel free to dive into the story."
And dive he did, explaining that his first decision was whether or not to set it in medieval times in Verona, Italy. "I wanted to go into something more universal and timeless," added Walerski. "That was the first challenge. Then I thought, 'Will it still be relevant?' To make it universal I was extracting strong themes of, love, death, conflict. How could I portray that and make it abstract, because this is also what I wanted to see."
In researching the work, Walerski recounted how he read the play in French, watched both Zeffirelli's 1968 film and Baz Luhrmann's 1996 take on the doomed lovers, as well as other choreographers' interpretations, in order to understand the psychology of the characters.
"When Mercutio is dying," he pointed out, "you want to stretch time, as well as when Juliet has to decide if she's going to drink or not drink the poison. I also wanted the performance to sculpt the space. Can I have almost nothing on stage and still have so much power for the performers to inhabit that space?" Martha Schabas, writing in the Globe and Mail noted that Walerski is "a choreographer who makes clear, theatrical choices and seems deeply invested in conceptual coherence."
The ballet, which tours to Sydney, Australia, in June, also melded various aspects of Walerski's own background. "I used my technique, my heritage, my experience. In my choreographic language, it is classically based, and then there is my modern dance background with Netherlands. This is also part of me, and it's about welcoming all these different techniques that I had the chance to work on and bring them forward."
Walerksi's familiarity with Ballet BC dancers was a plus, as well, with Emily Chessa, who has been with the troupe for eight seasons, reprising her Juliet and Justin Rapaport dancing Romeo. "To show her journey was difficult," explained Chessa, "but also really exciting because I find a joy in that character development and losing myself in the story. It's quite exhilarating, and Medhi really listens to what you need and helps you develop yourself with the character and your artistry."
It's obvious that Walerski has also connected with Ballet BC in profound ways, and will, in fact, become the troupe's new artistic director beginning in the 2020–21 season. And although he hadn't initially thought of himself as ever directing a company, while working on Romeo, he recalled, "it came to me that this would be a possibility. I know the place very, very well and have been coming for 10 years now. It's an ongoing relationship that we have together. Of course," he added, "I would want the company to keep going with its heritage — what Emily built over the past ten years. It has to be a creation-based company, and I also want to bring in new voices."
And in a strange but wonderful twist of fate, in July, Molnar will take the reins of Netherlands Dance Theater, where, she said, her main role will be to curate and support the development of dance. Regarding Walerski's new position, Molnar was equally excited: "I think Medhi's a wonderful choice. He's not unknown, so there's a history."
"He's also developed as a choreographer through his work here, and audiences have been inspired. On many different levels, he's deepened the artistic conversation and helped move the company forward through his curiosity as a maker. He also cared about its future and had ideas for where we could go next."
Sunday, March,1 | 2PM
Join Walerski, Molnar, as they discuss the work’s creation with arts journalist Victoria Looseleaf.