Since it was first written and performed in 1596, Shakespeare’s enduring 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, with indelible performances such as the 1966 Royal Ballet production starring Dame Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, choreographed by Sir Kenneth MacMillan, racking up hundreds of thousands of YouTube views in recent years.
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 French-born 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 was on full view when the troupe gave the US debut of the work last weekend at the Soraya.
Set to Prokofiev’s glorious 1938 score, Walerski’s “Romeo + Juliet,” which premiered in Vancouver in 2018, is one that might be called a minimalist narrative, with abstraction an integral part of the mix. Walerski’s own terpsichorean cred comes from having danced with Paris Opera Ballet before he joined Nederlands Dans Theater in 2001, embarking on a choreographic career with NDT seven years later. (And in a strange but wonderful twist of fate, Molnar will take the reins of NDT in July, while Walerski begins his tenure at Ballet BC beginning in the 2020-21 season.)
Making use of his classical training in combination with the flawless technique and sleek style associated with NDT, Walerski opted for a monochromatically themed dance, one literally devoid of color: From the black, grey and white Armani-esque costumes (designed by Walerski) to Theun Mosk’s movable rectangular-shaped “towers” that conjured doorways, windows and yes, Juliet’s fabled balcony—with the bedroom scene boasting a white, ruched fabric-covered mattress, a somber tone was set. But the production, spectacularly lit by Mosk, Walerski and Pierre Pontvianne, was colored by emotions run rampant.
The cast, some 30 strong (including students from Vancouver’s Arts Umbrella), moved at times like a single organism, also proving particularly potent while standing in a uniform line as if trying, albeit futilely, to ward off evil spirits by staring straight ahead as they did in the opening scene. The corps triumphed, serving, in its way, as a kind of Greek chorus. And while there were no vocal utterances in this performance, there were plenty of silent screams abetting those frigid glares.
Storytelling, nevertheless, ruled in Walerski’s edgy but definitive concept that could also appear otherworldly. The ballroom scene, replete with several masks (no nods to the coronavirus) and featuring the composer’s memorable “Dance of the Knights” chord-crashing accompaniment, proved fodder for the carnal and creepy gang of women. Clad in sheer black tops and maxi-skirts, they executed slithery backbends while miming lecherous laughs.
Mr. and Mrs. Capulet (Makaila Wallace as a semi-detached mom and Walerski, himself, stepping in for an injured Sylvain Senez and exuding an authoritative, even menacing, nobility) have plans for their daughter to marry Paris (a fine Adrian De Leeuw). And so, in the pair’s turn around the floor, Paris flaunts Juliet (a lovely and vulnerable Emily Chessa, whose pliant moves are nothing short of feather-like), in a dance of doom physicality, with the suitor looming large over his prey in what could have been prelude to a veritable #MeToo moment.
But as the poet Robert Burns wrote of the best-laid plans, so, too, will the Capulets’ good intentions not so much as go awry, but end in tragedy of the highest order: Ah, it’s love at first sight between Romeo (a compelling Justin Rapaport) and Juliet, their dances bursting with innocent ardor as well as steamy kisses. And as no “R & J” can rise to greatness without a stellar couple, this duo did not disappoint. With Walerski’s expansive and sensual choreography, the corporeal gave way to a fluid melding of not only bodies, but souls.
The playful balcony scene also saw the pair dancing on the edge of a sideways-turned tower, with Chessa recalling Simone Biles on the balance beam; and whether walking backwards or acting somewhat nonchalant, the couple then found their fabulous footing on the floor, filling the stage with grace and grandeur to the sounds of soaring strings.
Deciding that betrothal is the answer, the star-crossed lovers seek out Friar Laurence (Peter Smida), who dutifully marries them. But happiness is not to be theirs for long: The demise of Mercutio (Scott Fowler) at the hands of Tybalt (a slinky Jordan Lang) in a prolonged death scene that, according to Molnar, “stretches time,” easily rivals any killing found in a noir flick, with Mercutio’s longing to live repeatedly bringing him back to his feet in this gut-wrenching passage. Romeo, left with no choice, strikes back and kills Tybalt.
Throughout the work, dancers are committed to Walerski’s edifying choreography, with shoulder shrugs, synchronized hand movements and effortless leaps omnipresent—as well as glacial walking à la Robert Wilson—while Alexis Fletcher’s able Nurse added demonstrative heft. But fate is against these athletes of God and as Juliet procures the potion that will allow her a deep sleep, she is also hurtling towards her own woeful demise.
Walerski’s tableaux may be stark, but mesmerize in kind, with Juliet’s tomb a mere white sheet covering her limp body. We can feel Romeo’s pain as he removes the sheet—but not before killing Paris, an unwelcome presence in this macabre setting. As the body count continues to rise, the drama comes to its calamitous close with the lovers’ ill-fated and ill-timed deaths.
In the work’s epilogue, we are once again confronted with the corps facing front, a collective steely glower daring us to make sense of it all. But there is no sense—not in killings, not in feuds, not even, sometimes, in love.
What does make sense is art, with Medhi Walerski and Ballet BC serving it up in spades in this staggeringly resonant piece of work.