Ballet BC creatively tells the story of Romeo + Juliet, but dances to the wrong music

 Brandon Alley and Emily Chessa as Romeo and Juliet. Photo credit: Michael Slobodian

Brandon Alley and Emily Chessa as Romeo and Juliet. Photo credit: Michael Slobodian

There’s been much fanfare leading up to Ballet BC’s world premiere version of Romeo + Juliet, choreographed and conceived by Medhi Walerski. We’re not used to seeing Ballet BC do full-length story work. On top of that, the classic tale of the two star-crossed lovers is closely tied to classical ballet. So how does this primarily contemporary company fare with its own rendition of the iconic love story? Ballet BC’s Romeo + Juliet is a great production, showcasing the emotionally-moving, quirky and daring style the company is renowned for. Not all the pieces fit together, but it’s an interesting and valiant effort.

Walerski’s concept is very dark and I found it very intriguing and enjoyable. The show reads like one long nightmare and reminds me of The Scream paintings by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. We’re thrown into a world where everything seems surreal, and there’s an impending dark fate looming. There are even a few moments in the show when characters evoke horrific, silent screams that sent shivers up my spine, despite the lack of sound – hence my reference to The Scream paintings.

In this nightmarish world the stage is mostly bare, with the exception of three geometric set pieces that are constantly utilized and repurposed. Fascinated by how Shakespeare often used the contrasting themes of night and day in his work, Walerski has set the first act in eerie darkness, while the second act is illuminated with light and whiteness. The lighting design for this show is really a gem to behold. One highlight includes the gorgeous morning sunlight pouring into Juliet’s room after she and Romeo have slept together. Another highlight is when the couple profess their love for each other during the balcony scene, while exquisitely lit by moonlight. Theun Mosk is to thank for the remarkable visuals of this show, having designed the sets, and collaborated with Walerski and Pierre Pontvianne on the lighting.

 Brandon Alley and Emily Chessa as Romeo and Juliet. Photo credit: Michael Slobodian

Brandon Alley and Emily Chessa as Romeo and Juliet. Photo credit: Michael Slobodian

Walerski’s unique contemporary choreography fits naturally well on Brandon Alley, who plays Romeo. The style if very abstract and certain dancers are often called upon to be extremely loose in their bodies, as if they were boneless jellyfish. The style reminds me of b-boy, and Alley is beautiful in not only the execution of Walerski’s choreography, but also in using it to express the emotions, thoughts and actions of Romeo.

As Juliet, Emily Chessa is a perfect counterpart. At times, she emits a radiant glow in her joyful movements, and at other times she evokes deep heartbreaking pain. What I also liked about Chessa's portrayal, is how intelligent and thoughtful her Juliet is. Together, Chessa and Alley’s chemistry is breathtaking, and they express love that is defiant and unbreakable.

One of elements of the show that I would like to highlight is the creative way in which Walerski has used his choreography to illustrate the development of Romeo and Juliet’s relationship. In the balcony scene, Juliet partakes in Romeo’s “jellyfish/b-boy” style of choreography. Later on, after Juliet and Romeo have consummated their marriage, Romeo adopts Juliet’s classical lines and style – which looked wonderful amidst the morning light, and the white bed and set pieces onstage.

 Emily Chessa as Juliet with the company. Photo credit: Michael Slobodian

Emily Chessa as Juliet with the company. Photo credit: Michael Slobodian

The show is set to Sergei Prokofiev’s score, the standard for classical ballet productions of Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps this music was chosen as an homage to the legacy of Romeo and Juliet’s history in the dance world and/or an intentional way of contrasting classical against contemporary. Either way, I wasn’t a fan of the music choice. Prokofiev’s score seemed much too heavy for the choreography. It works in classical ballet, where the score’s thunderous movement can match the deep plies and tour en l'air of the male dancers. Or when the prolonged, angelic-sounding chords are enhanced by beautiful arabesques.

The music selection was a chance for Walerski to get even more creative with the show's concept. Perhaps he could have chosen indie music, or acoustic covers, or various forms of contemporary instrumental music. 

This production deserved a more low-key score, something that could more closely match the unique movements and style of the choreography - as well as the thoughts of the characters. The programme notes indicate that Walerski did not intend for this concept to not take place in a specific time or place, and yet Prokofiev’s score, which was composed for the Kirov Ballet in 1935, contradicts that effort. Prokofiev’s score is very dramatic, and at times Walerski’s choreography has difficulty filling it out.

As there is no live orchestra for this show, the show is performed to a recording. When this is done with contemporary music, all is fine. But when this is done with a classical score, I feel it always brings about an amateurish quality – as if we’re watching a dance studio recital or competition. However, what makes the amateurish quality blatantly clear in this production is the overture. The lights dim and we literally sit staring at nothing while listening to an old recording. I feel this should go without saying – but sitting and listening to an overture only works when there’s a live orchestra playing. Otherwise, it seems pointless.

 Brandon Alley and Emily Chessa as Romeo and Juliet. Photo credit: Michael Slobodian

Brandon Alley and Emily Chessa as Romeo and Juliet. Photo credit: Michael Slobodian

Another oddity is the use of the female ensemble. During the Montagues and Capulets street battle scenes, the females are present and are just as physical and aggressive as the men. It looks very strange and made me feel uncomfortable to see men and women fighting each other. While Walerski may have been intending to portray women in a strong light, I feel the opposite was achieved. I would have liked to have seen the females portrayed as the stronger sex, and therefore not stooping to fighting like barbarians on the street. The street fighting in general seemed strange. For example, near the start of the show, nothing provoking enough happened for such an epic battle to erupt.

Another strange choice, is using women to portray men. They don’t even wear wigs – instead they have their hair up. It took me a while to realize that these female dancers were portraying men. Again, this further added to the amateurish quality of the show. And it definitely brought back memories of dance recitals and competitions where the girls had to pretend to be boys, since there were never enough boys. Some of the ensemble dancers are graduate students at Arts Umbrella experiencing their first time dancing with a professional company. They deserve a more professional image onstage than what has been offered to them.

 Chessa and Alley. Photo credit: Cindi Wicklund

Chessa and Alley. Photo credit: Cindi Wicklund

The second act flows a lot more nicely than the first, and I really enjoyed the storytelling in the second half. There’s a very creative scene in which Friar Laurence (played by Peter Smida) tells Juliet about the fateful secret plan, and you can see her envisioning the outcome behind her.

Overall, Ballet BC’s production of Romeo + Juliet has much more highs than lows, but it isn’t as successful in putting all the pieces together as one might have hoped for. In particular, I would like to see this concept set to more appropriate music. 

Ballet BC's Romeo + Juliet plays at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver until February 24. Visit Ballet BC's website for ticket information.