As reviews and reactions to the just-opened Broadway production of West Side Story (based of course on the Romeo and Juliet myth) zing back and forth like gang warfare, a new Romeo + Juliet by Ballet BC, the nearly 35-year-old Vancouver-based contemporary ballet troupe, heads to The Soraya for two performances. The production is en route to a major booking (seven shows) at the Sydney Opera House.
The relevance of Shakespeare’s tragic tale of intransigent rivalry between two clannish families, alas, never seems to fade. Nor does Serge Prokofiev’s churning, nearly monumental, music — ranging between the sinister and the sweet — fail to activate new choreographers.
There are go-to “Romeos” all around the world. Most belong to large ballet companies with deep-bench casting to unleash myriad Montagues and Capulets as they quash the pure love of innocents. The Royal Ballet’s iconic “Romeo” by Sir Kenneth MacMillan was a starring vehicle for Fonteyn and Nureyev, more recently taken on by Osipova and Halberg. American Ballet Theatre, too, dances the MacMillan; at the Metropolitan Opera House on May 23rd the lead roles will be danced by Misty Copeland and Calvin Royal III. The Kirov’s “R & J” (as ballet insiders call it) was choreographed by Soviet stalwart Leonid Lavrovsky in 1940 soon after the publishing of the Prokofiev score. (And that was not a very romantic time, falling more on the tragic side.) Alexei Ratmansky, whose “Of Love and Rage” ABT will premier next week at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, fashioned a “Romeo” for the Bolshoi in 2017. And the highly regarded San Francisco Ballet’s “Romeo,” by Helgi Tomasson, was born in 1994.
So why another “R & J”? Emily Molnar, Ballet B.C.’s artistic director commissioned the work not as a conservative move, but rather, as a change agent. “When I started directing the company [in 2009] I primarily oversaw contemporary mixed bills,” she said speaking by phone from Vancouver. “But wanting to offer a full spectrum of what it means to be creative ballet company within the contemporary space — and part of that is duration — first we did a Giselle, and now a Romeo + Juliet.”
The choreographer Molnar selected for this plum assignment was already known to Ballet BC. The French-born alumnus of Paris Opera Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theatre, Medhi Walerski, having completed three abstract works for the Canadians had never choreographed a story ballet. When he accepted the job, he was agnostic. Recalling that moment by telephone from Vancouver he said, “At first I didn’t want to judge the idea.”
“I come from a classical background; I absolutely love R/J; it was the first ballet I danced. It was the night of a premier of one of my pieces; I went into my room. I listened to Prokofiev’s music, and my heart started to beat.”
That is not surprising. Any dance maker with a musical bone in his or her body would salivate to harvest the movement, drama, and character embedded in Prokofiev’s score. “I wanted the experience,” said Walerski. “I read the Shakespeare, and the universality of the story was a big inspiration. It all appeared so relevant; it was an invitation to reflect on our civilization, how love and violence are so part of our world.”
Working on it, he admitted, “It hurt me.” By that he meant, “I felt very connected to the characters; I felt my mission was driven by following those characters.”
The undertaking — a narrative ballet to a highly known score by a boutique dance company — serves to unite two distinct silos of the dance world; smallish troupes that do primarily abstract ballets, and the mega-companies that tackle full-length narrative works from the classical canon. With Walerski’s Romeo + Juliet, Molnar is re-calibrating that dichotomy. “I would argue that narrative exists whenever you have a human being on a stage,” she said with surety. (Molnar is soon stepping down from Ballet BC, to be replaced by Walerski, when she takes the reins of Netherlands Dans Theatre next season.)
Walerski’s starting point is the ballet’s distinctive production design: a grey-toned minimalist set light years from the vibrant colors of a traditional Romeo + Juliet. “I wanted to extract anything that would have any relationship to Verona, to make it an unknown place, a timeless place,” he said.
That neutral setting strives to support the themes of the play, said Molnar, who sees no gap between the contemporary production design and Shakespeare’s classic tale. “I say there is no disconnect. The minimalism and monochromatic design enhances the story telling, it creates a light canvas that is not not distracting.
“I feel it is more human through the minimalism; he clearly tells the story; you feel wonderful movement invention, but this R&J has a sophistication that is needed when there is so much tragedy going on. I feel Medhi has done a brilliant job.”
The choreographer dug to the kernel of the story, seeking the “essence” of the emotions that drive the narrative. “My mission was to create from the essence of rage, the same with love; all is created from the essence of the emotion. It’s almost going against what we do as dancers and choreographers, which is to carve and craft every movement. A lot of it is choreographed, but a lot can be improvised. It is the beauty of live performance and being in the present. You have to bring you own soul and mind to it. I’m seeking a deeper understanding of the truthful reality of the story.”
That tale has centuries-long legs. “It’s still so relevant today. The first act I created was violent; but they don’t even know why they are fighting. Social poison has infiltrated humanity and people can hate each other without knowing the source of the animosity. It can be so destructive, and no one wins,” said Mehdi Walerski, the soon-to-be artistic director of Ballet BC and creator of a very moving, very emotional, very true Romeo + Juliet. After a pause, he noted, “And it can only lead to death.”
Romeo + Juliet | Ballet BC | The Soraya | Feb 29, March 1
Dance critic Debra Levine is founder/editor/publisher of arts●meme.