In retrospect, it feels like everything happened by some grand design. When Medhi Walerski created the beautifully eccentric Petite Cérémonie in 2013, it was an instant favourite in the Ballet BC repertoire, garnering standing Os.
When artistic director Emily Molnar invited Walerski back three years later to remount it as part of an entire evening of his work, the Parisian-born, The Hague–based dance artist admitted to the Straight that the company already felt like home. He enjoyed the freedom of the West Coast, far removed from the European scene.
“It was a side turn from what I was doing, and I had fun and wanted to do it again,” the choreographer said in 2016. “There’s something in Canada that I need. I can try different things.”
Walerski would go on to stage his first story ballet two years later—a fresh and striking Romeo and Juliet, which will soon see a return to the Queen E. stage. And in January came the big news that he’ll replace Molnar, officially starting as Ballet BC artistic director in July. In a balletically graceful bit of choreography, Molnar will take the coveted helm of Nederlands Dans Theater, where Walerski made his name as a dancer and choreographer, while he heads here from there, to lead the troupe she’s built into an internationally acclaimed force.
“I definitely plan to honour the vision that Emily has created and I want to bring it further,” Walerski says over the phone, in town to remount Romeo and Juliet. “The company now has such an upward trajectory. I want to give fresh challenges for the audience and the dancers.
“At the moment it’s as exciting as it is overwhelming, working on Romeo and Juliet and preparing for my new position,” he adds with a laugh. “I don’t even have time to think because I’m in it.”
Still, Walerski says the time couldn’t be better for him to make the big leap.
“I feel right now there is a buzz, a lot of artistic growth,” he remarks, adding he caught a bit of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival when he arrived earlier this month. “There’s a great energy here.”
That energy extends to Ballet BC, which has rebuilt spectacularly since Molnar’s takeover in 2009. It now regularly tours the planet to acclaim. This week, just before Romeo and Juliet, the troupe is hitting Los Angeles; in June it heads to the famed Sydney Opera House. Last year it appeared everywhere from Stuttgart to the Jacob’s Pillow festival in Massachusetts.
Molnar, here till the summer, has already plotted out next season, and Walerski is getting ready to shape the new creation he’ll stage for Ballet BC on that roster. He says he’s also excited to be launching a choreographers’ lab, bringing in creators from here and abroad. He reasserts Molnar’s own priority of staging women’s work, a hot topic considering he’s replacing someone celebrated as one of the world’s few major female artistic directors. It’s an issue where he’s walked the talk. Faced with a small furor surrounding Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in 2018, when that troupe put him on an all-male program devoted to choreography about women, he withdrew his piece. “I strongly support a more visible presence of my fellow female choreographers,” Walerski posted.
That tells you a lot about Walerski. So does the fact that, though he earned a spot at the legendary Paris Opera Ballet, he moved on quickly to Nederlands Dans Theater. “I didn’t stay so long at the Paris Opera Ballet because I was not so in touch with the hierarchy. I wanted to be somewhere where everyone had a chance,” he stresses. “That’s why I went to NDT, and that’s why I connect with Ballet BC, where everybody has a voice and there’s so much collaboration.”
Watch Walerski build his work in the studio, and you realize how much input he draws from the dancers—an approach he attributes to being a dancer for so long. When he created NATUS here in 2016, his starting point was asking the corps to write down their ideas of celebration.
Though he knows all the ins and outs of tours and jetés from the rigorous Paris years, he’s also found the freedom here to draw on whatever he needs to express his ideas. In Petite Cérémonie, dancers juggle, shuffle their feet, and even speak.
Now he eagerly returns to his hugely ambitious Romeo and Juliet, a work with a striking set that plays black off white. Walerski retains Sergei Prokofiev’s lush original score and roots the ballet in the deeply expressed emotion of its characters. The latter is why this spring’s version, with new dancers in some of the leading roles, is so different and surprising to him. Emily Chessa reprises Juliet, but alternates with Kristen Wicklund, while newcomers Justin Rapaport and Dex van ter Meij take turns as Romeo.
“It’s exciting to see what these new artists bring to the role and how it affects how we look at the story,” he reveals. “The story is still very universal, but it’s interesting to see it through the physicality of someone else.”
Amid all of this, Walerski is trying to scope out a place to live. “Mount Pleasant, the North Shore—I know it’s very difficult to find a place here, but all of these areas are really exciting,” he says. Somehow, given how things have played out already, we know he’ll find just the right spot to call home.
Ballet BC presents Romeo and Juliet at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre from next Wednesday to Saturday (March 4 to 7).