Ballet BC's fresh and aching Romeo + Juliet rewards a second look

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      A Ballet BC production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Wednesday, March 4. Continues until March 7

      It's been two years since choreographer Medhi Walerski debuted his audaciously contemporary vision of Romeo + Juliet with Ballet BC. With the troupe just back from taking it to L.A. and preparing to tour it as far away as the Sydney Opera House, the work is in finely polished form.

      Well worth a second viewing, the production staged in stormy whites, greys, and blacks reveals brilliant new nuances. The fact that Walerski is getting ready to take over the helm of the company in July, and that there are so many fresh and exciting new dancers taking on roles in the show, creates even more of a draw.

      Despite Walerski retaining Sergei Prokofiev's lush, dramatic score, Theun Mosk's design has a stark look, with giant rectangular frames that roll around to become everything from the famous balcony to doorways for entries, exits, and hiding.

      But there is nothing spare about Walerski's choreographic interpretation of the age-old tale, and that's why there's so much more to notice and discover on repeated looks. The brilliance is in the scenes where he uses nonliteral ways to express the emotions and turmoil in the story. In staging the death of Romeo's buddy Mercutio, Walerski switches the perspective to the dying young man's, with onlookers suddenly swirling around him after he's stabbed, laughing in dreamlike slow-motion, and finally gathering to lift him up to the light for his final breaths. The second act features black-suited figures who roil and pulse at Juliet's feet like shadows of death as she contemplates suicide. The choreographer has a way of freezing, stretching, and warping these iconic moments, and others, to find a new, resonant horror in them.

      Jordan Lang fights with Zenon Zubyk in Romeo + Juliet.
      Michael Slobodian

      Amid this, the performers find beautifully differentiated characterizations. As Romeo, newcomer Dex van ter Meij (who alternates in the role with Justin Rapaport) brings to mind a young, lithe, and heart-throbby Leonard Whiting (from Zeffirelli's film), turning his spine, arms, and legs liquid in the achingly lovelorn movement that Walerski gives him. He has a sensual second-act pas de deux with Kirsten Wicklund's feisty Juliet (she alternates with Emily Chessa), literally rolling out of bed together and folding and tangling gorgeously across the floor until they rise for effortless lifts and turns.

      Zenon Zubyk, another relative newcomer to the troupe, threatens to steal all his scenes as the joker Mercutio, mocking Romeo's lovesickness and blending aggro posturing with physical comedy in believable, and hugely entertaining, ways. Ballet BC alumni Makaila Wallace and Dario Dinuzzi bring the sinister Capulet energy—watch him force Juliet to don a wedding veil—and Alexis Fletcher and Peter Smida bring extra charisma to the nurturing Nurse and the empathetic Friar Laurence.

      This is a production that seems to be getting better with time, its most unforgettable moments—Romeo drawing a stage-filling white sheet off Juliet's lifeless body, the Capulets engaging in a sinister ballroom dance of doom—carrying even more emotional impact. The dancers make it clear that story ballet—not to mention Shakespeare—has a place in cutting-edge contemporary repertoire.

      Shadow figures roil at Kirsten Wicklund's feet in Romeo + Juliet.
      Michael Slobodian