Ballet BC’s Romeo + Juliet adds up

Emily Chessa & Brandon Alley | Photo by Cindi Wicklund

If Ballet BC’s new take on a staple seems old hat, you only need to look at the title of its new production to get a sense of what the company has in store.

Romeo + Juliet – Ballet BC’s first story-length offering since 2013 – isn’t simply a nod to Baz Luhrmann’s Gen Y cult favourite. More importantly, the title hints at the union of classic and modern dance, the hybrid of established mores with a fauvist vitality, and the convergence of external exposition and raw emotion.

All this plays out alongside Shakespeare’s Elizabethan tale and Prokofiev’s angular score.

Ballet BC tasked French dancer and choreographer Medhi Walerski with bringing the vision to life. The result is not only successful: the cohesion of movement, music and story feels inevitable.

It would be less accurate to say that the ballet takes place in Verona between star-crossed lovers caught in the middle of factional disputes between their two clans than to say that the setting of Ballet BC’s Romeo + Juliet is Shakespeare’s play, sublimely inhabiting and subverting its figurative landscape.

Ballet BC’s Romeo + Juliet undercuts our expectations of the play to reveal something new not only about the story itself but about the ability of dance and movement to reveal psychological depth and interiority.

This is done against a spare backdrop with only three rectangular pillars that roam the stage, serving variously as balcony, altar and sepulchre. The pallet is toned down to almost stifling modulations of black, white, grey and teal. But the monochrome scene is cut across with fluid limbs and vivid musculature.

When the cast – headed by Brandon Alley’s Romeo and Emily Chessa’s vibrant Juliet – strike classical poses and guide one another in eloquent pas de deux, we know we’re at the level of narrative, the linear thrust of the story gliding along unhindered. But the boundary between classicism and surrealism is porous and in an instant, before a stiff tableau of dancers, Alley’s limbs dissolve in liquid accents when he encounters Juliet for the first time at the Capulet estate.

Chessa likewise quivers in a fountain of sexualized arabesques after the night of her first consummation with Romeo.

Walerski’s direction indeed occupies the liminal space between Shakespeare’s setting and the communal psychological arena of its characters – soliloquy supplanted by choreography. What else to make of the death of Scott Fowler’s Mercutio when, after being thrust with a dagger, the entire cast coagulates into a fluid body through which the laughing-dying Mercutio floats in a dreamscape both expressionistic and Shakespearean?

When Juliet considers the dagger she holds aloft toward the end of the ballet, the stage lights abruptly shut off. Before you have time to decide whether there was a power failure, the lights switch back and the stage is revealed suddenly flooded with undulating figures sheathed in black. They ripple and coax Juliet as she ponders her pre-emptive death rather than marry Count Paris.

This ballet may one more permutation on Shakespeare’s lofty theme (and innumerable choreographers have set Prokofiev’s score), yet the whole here is entirely Walerski’s. One which, – story, score and movement – is greater than the sum of its parts.