Ballet BC's Romeo + Juliet plays emotional storytelling off stark and colourless sets

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      A Ballet BC presentation. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Thursday, February 22. Continues until February 24

      Ballet BC’s sleekly contemporary new Romeo + Juliet is a study in vivid contrasts. The most obvious ones are white against black in the costumes and sets, and bright light against shadowy darkness. Both play on the purity of the central couple’s love versus the violence and conflict of their families. But there’s also the incongruity of the stark scenery against Sergei Prokofiev’s lushly romantic score, and the deeply expressed emotions against the cold and colourless world.

      In his new spin on one of ballet’s most staged works, Parisian choreographer Medhi Walerski attempts to strip Romeo + Juliet to its essentials. But he also creates a dreamlike feel. In fact, this intricately choreographed ballet is often at its best at its most expressive. In the second act, Emily Chessa’s Juliet is surrounded by black-suited shadow figures who roil at her feet and pulse around her, embodying the torment as she considers faking her own death. In the first act, Mercutio’s (Scott Fowler) murder plays out like a slow-motion, Fellini-esque trip into momentary purgatory: the members of the crowd turn their backs on him and later pull their faces into laughs as he starts to depart his earthly body.

      Walerski has integrated giant hollow rectangles that wheel around the performers, cleverly becoming portals for entrances, exits, and hiding places; one flips on its side to form the famous balcony. In the second act, the marital bed is basically a white, mattress-sized cube with shimmery sheets.

      While the sets are minimalistic, the constant movement, filled out by added members from the Arts Umbrella corps,  animates and sculpts the space. You’ll love the sinister magic Walerski creates with the well-known ballroom scene, set against Prokofiev’s Darth Vader–like theme. Dressed in long black skirts and tight, transparent-black, high-necked tops, the performers make the sequence an ominous dance of doom and oppression.

      Emily Chessa's Juliet is surrounded by shadow figures in Romeo + Juliet.
      Michael Slobodian

      As Romeo and Juliet, Brandon Alley and Chessa give the piece its consistent emotional heart. They’ve infused their characters with youthful naiveté and energy, wrapping and intertwining sensually, and kissing more than you’re likely to see in any other R + J. Chessa is luminous and sylphlike, whether falling liquidly into Romeo’s arms, rising weightlessly in his lifts, or contorting in a silent scream over his body. Meanwhile, Alley is boyish, exuberant, and smitten. (Kirsten Wicklund and Christoph von Riedemann dance the roles on February 23.) There are other strong performances from this troupe so unused to story-ballet characters, from Gilbert Small (Tybalt) and Fowler as feisty young warriors to the return of veterans Sylvain Senez and Makaila Wallace as the stern Capulet patriarch and matriarch.

      What stands out most in this ambitious production, perhaps, is the clear storytelling despite the multitude of characters, the lack of familiar sets, and the long and complex first act. Walerski has carved the production into a stylized piece of minimalist art, but there are touchstones here that are loyal to William Shakespeare’s original play: the vial of poison, the dagger, and the gauzy wedding veil.

      The question is, will audiences be able to let go of the Renaissance trappings and the pointe shoes so often associated with Romeo and Juliet? If they can, Walerski’s vision of the classic is clearly structured, striking in its own avant-garde way, and emotionally engaging. The emphasis here is on the intricate, ever-flickering dance—and a standing ovation appeared to show most audience members found less can be more.