Medhi Walerski returns to Ballet BC to explore celebration, order, and chaos

The European choreographer opens up about the intense process of creation—and having to leave a work behind

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      Petite Cérémonie has become an audience favourite in the Ballet BC repertoire—a quirky essay on the way we box ourselves in that has been remounted several times and travelled across the country since it debuted five years ago.

      It’s a journey, ironically, that its own creator has not been able to enjoy firsthand. “I haven’t seen it since 2011,” muses Paris-born Medhi Walerski, speaking to the Straight at the Scotiabank Dance Centre during a break from rehearsals. “It’s like you have a child and say, ‘Okay, here you go,’ ” he explains, gesturing like he’s pushing a beloved toddler out the door.

      Reflecting on the brief but powerful process of working as a visiting choreographer halfway around the world, he candidly adds: “Sometimes I want to cry because it is so intense. You spend all this time with these people, and then you have to leave.”

      Walerski, who is based at the acclaimed Nederlands Dans Theater, says he needs several days to decompress, or perhaps detach himself, between making a piece here and immersing himself in the Dutch company again.

      Working with a visiting choreographer is equally intense for the dancers. Ballet BC performer Peter Smida, who joins Walerski on the break, reframes the separation that comes after creation in a more positive light. An eight-season veteran of the company, he’s used to adapting to the different choreographers that come through Ballet BC’s studio doors each season.

      “Usually, the choreographer will stay for the premiere and then leave in the middle of the run,” Smida says. “There’s a sense of ownership: you say, ‘It’s our responsibility now,’ and it is important to uphold what’s important for the choreographer and the integrity of the work.”

      Having had several sessions of working together this season, Walerski and the company are in the midst of that deep journey again. Ballet BC’s entire Program 2, in fact, is devoted to Walerski’s creations. The first is an expanded, reinvented Prélude, a poetic exploration of chaos and order and the individual versus the group. (It debuted in its original form in 2014.) The Ballet BC corps is being boosted to 25, thanks to the addition of members of Arts Umbrella. The second is an unnamed piece Walerski’s been inventing with the dancers—an offbeat, theatrical work that’s being kept a mystery, not least because it, like the choreographer’s previous creations, will change up until the last minute.

      “The whole thing is a journey and I guess you could say I’m a bit of a guide,” hints Smida, who plays a prominent role in the piece.

      Like Petite Cérémonie, the new work requires the dancers to speak. It’s a job Smida, who had to deliver a warped speech on men and women while juggling three balls in Petite, welcomes. “I actually did theatre before dance, and in Grade 11 I got a drama award in high school,” says the well-spoken, Royal Winnipeg Ballet–trained dancer with a laugh. “It’s always been something I’ve been interested in. There’s a comfort with being able to stand in front of a room and speak. There’s almost something empowering about it. You can get super honest with no inhibitions. We built the text together, so there’s some personal stuff in there.”

      Medhi Walerski with Ballet BC.
      Amanda Siebert

      Possibly because he is a dancer himself, Walerski draws heavily on the ideas of his performers when he builds a work like this one. “Peter is giving me so much—I get so much from all these dancers,” the choreographer says. “I have so much fun with them. I love that, myself, as a dancer: to be that involved. I believe the piece is as much their voice as my own.”

      He relates that at the beginning of this process, he asked all the dancers to write down different concepts of celebration. “I’m around 30 and that’s when people start to die or people get married, so I had a lot of celebrations in my life,” he explains. “And then I had this baroque music from [Henry] Purcell that relates to certain celebrations and funerals. So that’s where we started.”

      The troupe came up with many ideas on the theme. “It ended up being a lot related to death and also about the energy of celebration. There is love, sadness, joy,” the choreographer notes.

      As Smida observes, the ballet-trained Walerski is unafraid to draw on whatever stylistic methods he needs to express his ideas. As audiences saw in the eclectic Petite Cérémonie, dancers are as likely to speak, juggle, or shuffle their feet to the rhythm as they are to pull off balletic moves. “I love to go in many different directions and then I find through editing that it makes sense,” Walerski says. “It just reveals itself. It’s like mind-mapping.”

      It’s a freedom, he reveals, that he discovers only here. He’s choreographed at other companies, but this is the one he keeps returning to. “Here, it felt like home,” he explains, adding he loves the versatile dancers at Ballet BC as much as he does the city. “It was a side turn from what I was doing and I had fun and wanted to do it again—there’s something in Canada that I need. I can try different things. I can be myself.”

      Prélude, too, will show another, wholly different side to his talent. A run-through at rehearsal reveals it as a deeply humanistic piece about society closing in on individuals. Wall-like rows of dancers stride against individuals, and out of the group, Rachel Meyer and Scott Fowler enact a yearning, anguished pas de deux. The work often explodes from order into chaos. But even in the bursts of disorder, Walerski, perched atop a rehearsal-hall chair, watches closely for details, seeking clarity in the moving mass of 20-odd dancers who pack the studio. “Don’t be affected by the power of the music,” he calls out to the troupe. “Listen to the group and pay attention to the energy between each other.”

      Earlier, in the interview, he says of the massive moving parts of the piece: “In the studio, it’s overwhelming and it’s a lot to digest and to articulate.”

      In other words, it’s intense—all the more so, no doubt, because he knows he will be leaving this piece behind, in the hands of these dancers, in just a few weeks.

      Ballet BC presents Program 2 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre next Thursday to Saturday (March 17 to 19).

      Medhi Walerski with Ballet BC.
      Amanda Siebert