ed. note: This story by dance critic Debra Levine, commissioned and originally published by the Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for the Arts, is reprinted with permission.
When the effervescent contemporary ballet troupe Ballet BC last appeared at The Soraya, it was indeed “BC”—Before Covid. The stellar dancers captivated the audience in choreographer Medhi Walerski’s passionate, modern-day rendering of Romeo + Juliet. As the curtain fell, the ovation was prolonged. Two years later, the sound of that applause, it is hoped, will again greet the enticing mixed-repertory program planned by the Vancouver-based company. The event, on Saturday, February 26, is special for another reason: Ballet BC has been named as The Soraya’s dance company in-residence, following a five-year residency by Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.
Three very different works are on tap for dance fans on the 26th: Garden (2016), an abstract ballet by Walerski that is deeply immersed in the music of Camille Saint-Saens; The Statement (2018) a razor-sharp satiric work by Crystal Pite that goes mano a mano with its spoken-word text; and, rounding off the bill, Ballet BC will perform, what else? An excerpt from Romeo + Juliet (2018).
This echo of Romeo + Juliet was the idea of Thor Steingraber, The Soraya’s Executive and Artistic Director. Steingraber envisioned the excerpting of Walerski’s searing R + J as “connective tissue bridging a gap that has been such a difficult time for dance.” Walerski, who assumed the mantle of Ballet BC Artistic Director in 2020, agreed. “Thor thought it would a way to celebrate our return to The Soraya, and I thought it was a great idea. We’re bringing two pas de deuxs, one is the balcony scene, which needs no explanation, the other is the second-act bedroom scene where the young couple consummates their love.”
We spoke with Walerski, a Frenchman, recently, on a Los Angeles-to-Luxembourg Zoom call. A ruggedly handsome man with a mane of salt-and-pepper, curly hair, he was surprisingly fresh and talkative despite having “looked at a stage for ten hours today.” (He’s in the throes of preparing a Ballet BC world premiere at Grand Théâtre de la Ville de Luxembourg.) He cheerfully called the chat, “a great way to unwind.”
It was refreshing to hear Walerski, the creator of almost twenty ballets, talk about art. The product of training at Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris, and, a former dancer with the Paris Opera Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theater, he admitted, “I come from a classical ballet background [and I remain] very much inspired by my training. I want to honor that, and to use the knowledge and appreciation that I have for classical ballet.”
That entails deep attention to classical music. “I’ve been creating for the past few years using classical music. I just love the music; it’s what inspires me,” he said, noting the magical effect music can bring. “It’s what lives between the dancers and the audience, it’s a vibration; it’s something that we feel.”
Walerski’s Garden spools to a score written in 1855, Saint Saëns’s “Piano quintet in A minor.” The choreography pours forth in duets, quartets and full-ensemble sections. “When I made Garden, I had just stopped dancing,” he explains. “I was looking for something close to my heart. The piece is very inspired by the dialogue between the strings and the piano; and the dancers echo the music.” Beyond the Saint Saëns, “There is a bit of soundscape, as well, in the beginning and the middle.”
Walerski shared insight into his recurring themes: “I am interested in opposites, in the idea of polarities. In Romeo + Juliet, [I worked with] the idea of light and dark and chaos and order. I think there is a beauty in the tension between both rigor and freedom, between what is extremely sequenced and crafted and something improvisational—although everything in Garden is pretty much set.”
One of the most in-demand female choreographers in the world, the Canadian Crystal Pite, is represented on the program with The Statement, emblematic of her quick-witted style of miming a heady mix of ideas. Walerski said of it, simply, “It’s brilliant. It’s a masterpiece.”
It’s no “spoiler” to call The Statement danced lip-syncing, but let’s leave the labelling at that. Pite herself calls the work a play. Four characters in a corporate conference room, through heightened physical conversation, attempt to problem-solve. Walerski noted, “It is brilliantly crafted, beautifully lit, and extremely relevant to our time … we are talking about control, conflict, responsibility.”
“Our dancers learned The Statement half on Zoom and half with Crystal in the studio,” he said. “Everyone learned the dance, and some even learned two parts.” Pite herself did the casting: “Crystal selected the right assemblage, the right mix of characters.” Do the Ballet BC dancers enjoy performing this humorous-but-biting spectacle? “Oh my god!,” Walerski nearly cried out. “They are so involved—physically, psychologically, it’s so detailed and precise, because the body language has to be in perfect sync versus the voice. They totally embrace the piece.”
Asked about the dancers of Ballet BC, who are the instrument of his creativity, Walerski had high praise. “This new generation is extremely talented,” he said. “They are hungry for space, for self-expression—and they come up with incredible suggestions. It’s such an honor to work with them.” The honors, which abound, include bringing his dancers to The Soraya. Walerski called the house “a discovery” and “one of the most beautiful theaters I’ve been to.” At the center of the experience, for a choreographer, is the stage: “It is incredible, state-of-the-art.” And then there is the “warm and welcoming” audience. Two years, it seems, has been too long!
Dance critic Debra Levine is founder/editor/publisher of arts●meme.
Ballet BC | The Soraya | Saturday Feb 26