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For years, dance artist Medhi Waler­ski pur­posely avoided story bal­let, im­mersed as he was in the more ab­stract, cut­ting-edge works of Ned­er­lands Dans Theater, where he’s per­formed and chore­ographed for more than a decade.

That’s hard to be­lieve when you see him in the Bal­let BC stu­dio to­day, con­jur­ing his own Romeo + Juliet.

The French-born chore­og­ra­pher walks in­tently amid a swirl of more than 20 dancers, qui­etly guid­ing Emily Chessa’s Juliet as she con­tem­plates a glass vial of poi­son and then de­scends into emo­tion as she watches a fore­shad­ow­ing of her own death un­fold. Waler­ski is telling a story. And he’s in his ele­ment.

“Funny enough, and I said it this morn­ing, I am so happy that I got the chance—that I got of­fered a story bal­let. Be­cause first of all it chal­lenged me, but also be­cause I re­al­ize I en­joy it!” Waler­ski says on a break, sit­ting in an empty stu­dio at the Sco­tia­bank Dance Cen­tre. “I feel con­nected now. Maybe I didn’t feel brave enough to en­ter that be­fore—to talk about love, to talk about death, to talk about con­flict. It’s so rel­e­vant and I just feel con­nected to it to­day, more than I could have in the past.”

In pre­par­ing the piece he’s been craft­ing with the troupe since last sum­mer, Waler­ski has im­mersed him­self in re­search. He’s watched the sem­i­nal 1968 Franco Zef­firelli film, the bom­bas­tic ’90s Baz Luhrmann movie, and plays and other bal­lets on video. He’s also read Shake­speare—mostly in his more com­fort­able French. And he’s found a way to make the story his own.

“It’s al­most like open­ing a door that hasn’t been opened with what I’ve seen done be­fore. This is where I bring my own in­ter­pre­ta­tion,” Waler­ski says of his first full-length nar­ra­tive work. “I wanted to stay close to the story, but I wanted to de­velop cer­tain parts that caught my in­ter­est.”

The tale of the two trag­i­cally star­crossed lovers will feel fa­mil­iar to au­di­ences, and so will the score. In talks with Bal­let BC, Waler­ski, who’s staged the shorter pieces Pe­tite Céré­monie, Pre­lude, and Na­tus for the com­pany, de­cided im­me­di­ately to use the lush, clas­si­cal-bal­let score by Sergei Prokofiev.

“It was like a gene, like the DNA of the piece,” he says.

BUT THIS BAL­LET will look starkly dif­fer­ent from other ver­sions—and that’s ap­par­ent even from re­hearsals, where the per­form­ers are mov­ing in, around, and through three gi­ant, black, hol­low rec­tan­gles that roll around the stage on wheels—al­most like dancers them­selves. Ex­pect a stage that plays with stark black-and­white and geo­met­ric touches.

“I knew that I wanted it to be time­less and not in a spe­cific place,” says Waler­ski, who worked with Dutch set and light­ing de­signer Theun Mosk on Romeo + Juliet’s vis­ual world. “I wanted some­thing pure, some­thing uni­ver­sal, so that you could con­nect with the emo­tions and feel­ings and psy­chol­ogy of the char­ac­ters, more than be­ing in Italy or Re­nais­sance time. I got in­spired as well with the El­iz­a­bethan aes­thetic—i just use it as just a flavour. I de­signed the cos­tumes, and they are con­tem­po­rary, but they have just a hint of the El­iz­a­bethan—the high col­lars, and the men have th­ese lit­tle dou­blets.

“The look also re­lates to Shake­speare: what I con­nected to with him was this idea of dark and light, and day and night. There’s this con­stant du­al­ity in his work that I wanted to use in the aes­thet­ics of this piece. It’s very sim­ple—but sim­plic­ity is not easy.”

Per­haps most chal­leng­ing for Waler­ski was delv­ing into and de­vel­op­ing each of the char­ac­ters—a task that isn’t re­quired in the more con­cep­tual group pieces he reg­u­larly stages, from NDT to the Göte­borg Bal­let. He says Rum­ble Theatre artis­tic di­rec­tor Stephen Drover (who has worked ex­ten­sively


in Shake­speare and di­rected Romeo and Juliet for Theatre New­found­land Labrador) stopped in to give ad­vice. The work goes far be­yond the lovelorn, emo­tion-drenched roles of Chessa’s Juliet and fel­low stand­out Bran­don Al­ley’s Romeo.

“I’ve never worked with so many char­ac­ters!” Waler­ski says. “Usu­ally, I do group pieces. Here, they all be­long to the same story, but they all have a very spe­cific role. So the way I’m go­ing to chore­o­graph and search for move­ment with some­one that feels much more anger is go­ing to be dif­fer­ent than some­one who is 14 and full of joy and hope and so fresh. So it’s so de­mand­ing.”

But for Waler­ski, per­haps the most com­pelling thing per­son­ally and pro­fes­sion­ally is that this am­bi­tious Bal­let BC story bal­let—its first full-evening one since José Navas’s Giselle in 2013—so per­fectly brings to­gether the dis­parate el­e­ments of his own back­ground. Be­fore be­com­ing one of NDT’S bright lights, Waler­ski danced for the Paris Opera Bal­let. And though at one point in his life, he ad­mits, he was fo­cused on blazing his own path, he now wel­comes its in­flu­ence on his con­tem­po­rary dance.

“I am clas­si­cally trained, and it is part of my her­itage and it is part of my lan­guage, even though my move­ment is con­tem­po­rary. And it is not some­thing I re­ject now; it’s some­thing I em­brace,” he em­pha­sizes. “It doesn’t mean that it’s dated or dusty.…i’ve been a con­tem­po­rary dancer for so many years as well, so how can I use the two [forms] to help each other, to chal­lenge each other? And all th­ese dancers here have won­der­ful bal­let tech­nique and they’re won­der­ful mod­ern dancers— so let’s use all that.”

Romeo + Juliet

Bran­don Al­ley and Emily Chessa (Cindi Wick­lund photo) dance for Medhi Waler­ski (Four Eyes Por­traits photo).

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