Ballet B.C. brings doomed lovers Romeo and Juliet to life

Note: This event has been cancelled.

ON STAGE

What: Ballet B.C.’s Romeo + Juliet
Where: Royal Theatre
When: Friday, Mar. 13, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, March 14, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $29-$105 from the Royal McPherson box office (250-386-6121) and rmts.bc.ca

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Romeo and Juliet — the couple whose destiny remains a question mark throughout William Shakespeare’s 16th-century play of the same name — ultimately meet a tragic end, which has given playwrights, singers, actors and dancers plenty of room for dramatic interpretation over the years.

Thousands of versions have been staged across a variety of mediums, ranging from Sergei Prokofiev’s 1938 ballet to Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film. Medhi Walerski took cues from the former when planning the choreography for his re-telling for Ballet B.C., which runs Friday and Saturday at the Royal Theatre, and incorporated elements of the latter as well.

Perhaps his biggest influence, however, was something much more radical than what had come before: Baz Luhrmann’s violent, modern version from 1996, with a gun-toting Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of Romeo.

“It is a very beautiful take on Romeo and Juliet,” Walerski said of Luhrmann’s Oscar-nominated hit. “It is a genius way of looking at the history. It’s the same, just through a different mind. But what comes out — the essence, the emotion — manages to extract the universality of the story.”

Walerski has been named Ballet B.C.’s new artistic director, so his work on Romeo + Juliet (which premièred in 2018) served as something of an informal introduction. He has been associated with Ballet B.C. for years, but staging the Prokofiev classic in his first full-length narrative work, a commission funded in part by Dance Victoria, through the Chrystal Dance Fund, was certainly ambitious.

With nearly 30 dancers participating, Romeo + Juliet remains one of the bigger productions in Ballet B.C. history, he said. “I wanted to stay as close as possible to the Shakespeare play, which was one of the biggest inspirations for me. But I wanted to bring something new from my vision to the story. That was the greatest challenge for me, because it has been done so many times in so many beautiful ways.”

The sets are modern and minimalist, which allowed Walerski to work with his dancers on craft and composition almost exclusively.

Extravagance was out, in favour of more natural beauty.

“I wanted the dancers to sculpt the space. Because it’s a very ambitious project, I wanted to come back to something more simple, to highlight emotions, to play with the narrative to make the story more universal.”

An important aspect of Walerski’s vision was favouring psychological time over real time — putting the audience in the subconscious mind of Romeo’s friend, Mercutio, when he is being stabbed, for instance, or knowing what Juliet is thinking when she drinks the poison.

“It was about removing the medieval and Italian context, and bringing more ambiguity to the [Montague and Capulet] families. The dark side of humanity, and why this conflict is happening. Visually and esthetically, I tried to strip the story to its essence.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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