Five years ago Ballet BC Artistic Director Emily Molnar did something unusual. In the midst of the company's renaissance and bold recasting of itself as a contemporary ballet company, she commissioned a new version of Giselle from then choreographer-in-residence José Navas. I say unusual because just as audiences were starting to embrace her choreographic accent on mixed programs of complex non-narrative and conceptual works of dance, here she was presenting a classic example of nineteenth-century story ballet. Then, too, her choice of Navas--a Cunningham-trained dancer and choreographer steeped in abstraction--to create the work seemed strange. The resulting production was a bold updating of the ballet's sexual and gender politics for the twenty-first century (Giselle, Albrecht and Hilarion in a homoerotic love triangle), accompanied by a striking stage design. However, I had mixed feelings about how Navas took his cue from Adolphe Adam's music in crafting his choreography, especially the extent to which the work of the ensemble overshadowed the solos and duets of the principals. (You can read my full review here.)
To be sure, the flipping of this traditional balance between displays of individual virtuosity and moments of visually and technically satisfying collective dancing is in many ways to be expected when a contemporary choreographer used to working collaboratively encounters a company with the depth of talent (and lack of hierarchy) like Ballet BC's. For, with this weekend's world premiere of the Molnar-led Ballet BC's second in-house story ballet, Medhi Walerski's updating of the Prokofiev-scored Romeo and Juliet, I experienced something similar to my appreciation of Navas' Giselle: I was absolutely spell-bound by the group scenes, and by the clean modernist lines and monochromatic palette of the stage design (the set, consisting of three giant moveable portals, was by Theun Mosk, the costumes by Walerski himself); the partnering between the two leads, however, left me a little nonplussed.
The piece opens in a visually dramatic fashion. Following Prokofiev's opening overture, the curtain rises to reveal the entire ensemble--supplemented here by several Arts Umbrella apprentices, as well as member of AU's Graduate Program in Dance--massed on stage, staring out at the audience, their rigid posture and grim faces telegraphing what Shakespeare's choral prologue tells us we already know: things aren't going to end well for our star-crossed lovers. In the midst of this bit of kinetic telepathy, one of the dancers suddenly moves. It is Romeo (Christoph von Riedemann), moving horizontally across the stage to find Juliet (Kirsten Wicklund) and take her hand. But she pushes him away, and I admit that I experienced a brief moment of narrative confusion here: was this Walerski suggesting that the young lovers, or at the very least Juliet, know from the start that their romance is doomed; or could this be, as I also wondered, an opening condensation of the backstory involving poor Romeo's rejection by Rosaline, for whom he is pining before he falls for Juliet?
The question is left unanswered as we are immediately plunged into a roiling and raucous street scene in Verona. Here is where Walerski immediately places his own choreographic stamp on this signature story and music, busying the stage with so many bodies, their movements transitioning fluidly between recognizable bits of actorly pantomime (conversation and gossip, a hearty hail hello or an unneighbourly snub), physical theatre that serves a narrative purpose (a shove between rival members of the Houses Montague and Capulet that turns into a full-scale brawl), and gorgeous dancerly unison that is as pleasing for its scale as for its skilled execution. This combined group aesthetic is especially powerful during the ball scene when Romeo and Juliet first meet, where in moving between the initial hijinks of Romeo, Benvolio (Patrick Kilbane) and Mercutio (a stellar Scott Fowler) and later the love-at-first-sight encounter between Romeo and Juliet, Walerski channels a version of cinematic montage (he has stated that his research included the famous R&J films by Zeffirelli and Luhrmann). That is, Walerski is somehow able to slow down time, giving us a glimpse of romantic interiority (as with the hand on hand duet that is the danced equivalent of Shakespeare's palmers' speech) amid what is otherwise a scene of domestic exteriority. Likewise in the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt (Gilbert Small), the former's inevitable careening and off-kilter march toward death is forestalled more than once by the juxtapositional tumult of its frenzied witnessing by the citizens of Verona--a reminder that the division between these two houses affects all members of this society.
By contrast, in the famous balcony scene Walerski doesn't really give the young lovers that much to do by way of compelling or interesting dancing. He is in a rush to bring the two together, but the lifts that result are often physically and visually awkward, and where one would hope for something surprising by way of a transition he frequently substitutes a kiss. In this scene of the play, before Romeo announces his presence, Juliet expresses her excitement at having met Romeo in vocabulary that is richly physical and kinetically alive and she is in many ways the more active and worldly of the two characters ("You kiss by the book," she tells Romeo). Yet here I found her to be mostly passive, spending more time in the air than on the ground, danced more by Romeo rather than dancing for or around him. (Contrast this with Kenneth MacMillan's famous staging of this scene with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, in which the latter spends a full minute or so in stillness on his knees as the former twirls around him.) I did respond more enthusiastically to the scene in Act II when the lovers consummate their secret marriage, Walerski's crafting of a pas de deux that is mostly floor-bound and a rolling mix of intertwined limbs nicely conveying that for these two teenagers they are as much in lust as they are in love. And in this version of the ballet Juliet is, uniquely, given a long moment of psychological interiority when, having been instructed by Friar Laurence (Peter Smida, effecting the sexiest onstage priest I've ever seen) to take the poison that will induce her family to think she is dead, she is allowed to gaze upon a tableau vivant version of these events, the witnessing of the inert body of her double perhaps giving her momentary pause as to whether this passion isn't just high stakes folly. And the way all of this plays out in the tomb when the banished and lately returned Romeo discovers what he thinks to be Juliet's dead body is a truly amazing coup-de-thèatre.
In the end, what is perhaps most surprising about this production is the extent to which a contemporary choreographer like Walerski has embraced the narrative and characterological codes of dance drama. This includes effective front of curtain bits of pantomimed action that serve as transitions between scenes. And it also includes the casting of three veteran Ballet BC dancers in non-dancing roles: the alums Sylvain Senez and Makaila Wallace as Juliet's parents; and longtime company member Alexis Fletcher as the Nurse. Fletcher, especially, proves herself up to the dramaturgical challenge of acting with her body, and her stolid and physically grounded presence as confidante, interlocutor, and witness is a reminder that no monument to these lovers' senseless deaths will absolve anyone on stage from their complicity in this tragedy. As such, when the ensemble gathers at the end over Romeo and Juliet's bodies--in a reprise of the opening diorama--it was the Nurse, in her distinctive checked skirts, whose image I first sought out.
Notwithstanding the caveats outlined above, I look forward to encountering the Nurse and all of her fellow Veronese when this ambitious production is next revived in repertoire.