Ushering Ballet BC into the future

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      “When I think about Ballet BC, there’s a sentence that people have been sharing with me,” says artistic director Medhi Walerski, “that it’s Vancouver’s best-kept secret.”

      As the city’s—and really, Western Canada’s—preeminent contemporary ballet company, it may seem strange to hear Ballet BC be referred to as a secret. Founded in 1986 by David Y. H. Lui, Jean Orr, and Sheila Begg, it has been an important part of the local dance community for nearly four decades. Still, Walerski points out, its biggest audience isn’t actually at home.

      “The company is actually more known abroad than it is here,” he says via phone, noting that its upcoming season includes stops in New York and Europe. “We have an international audience that wants to see the company every season.”

      It’s equal parts encouraging and disheartening. On the one hand: fantastic that our little dance company has achieved such prominence in other countries. On the other: why don’t we recognize the incredible art being made in our own city? People love to complain that there’s nothing going on here, but when it comes to the performing arts—and dance in particular—it seems that nothing could be further from the truth.

      Walerski, then, is tasked with the difficult job of making contemporary ballet appeal to locals: something he says he’s doing through education of young audiences and more accessible season programs that lean less heavily on classical ballet.

      Medhi Walerski.
      Photo by Michael Slobodian.

      For the uninitiated, classical ballet is probably what you’re picturing in your mind right now: pointe shoes, ornate and vibrant tutus, hair slicked back in tight buns, small jumps, tight spins, long lines, and instrumental classical music like Mozart or Stravinsky. Contemporary ballet, meanwhile, combines classical ballet technique with modern dance to create movement that is more relaxed (not to be confused with simple) and organic—and, when done right, emotional.

      “There’s so much happening right now in the world of dance, and the power of dance, and I feel that we’ve been shifting a little bit from, firstly, the understanding of what a ballet company is today,” Walerski offers. “Ballet is often associated with classical ballet, which is due to historical and cultural factors, of course—but Ballet BC today is redefining what ballet is, making it an artform that is able to change [into] the future.”

      Ballet BC’s 2023/2024 season is focused on that mission, with an exciting slate of shows that combine celebrated favourites and new works. It begins in November with HERE, which will see acclaimed William Forsythe piece Enemy in the Figure alongside world premieres by Stephen Shropshire and Shahar Binyamini respectively. And Walerski’s own choreography will be on display to close the season, with FOR EVER showcasing three of his pieces (one of which is a world debut).

      Walerski took the helm of Ballet BC in 2020, following the tenure of the beloved Emily Molnar, who left her post to lead The Hague’s renowned Nederlands Dans Theater. Walerski, who was raised in France, has danced at Nederland Dans Theater as well as Paris Opera Ballet, and has worked with world-famous choreographers including William Forsythe, Rudolf Nureyev, Wayne McGregor, and Vancouver’s own Crystal Pite. He had choreographed pieces for Ballet BC (and other companies) before, but this is his first turn at artistic director—a role he’s settling into quite nicely.

      “What has surprised me is how much I love this transition,” he says. “I did not expect to enjoy being responsible for this artform and for the company as much as I do.”

      Which makes Walerski excited not only about his company, but about the local dance community in general.

      “I think that Vancouver is filled with so much talent—a new generation of artists who really want to build this city into a hub, and a more connected, thriving art ecosystem,” he says. “I did not expect that from Vancouver.”

      But now that he’s here, now that he’s seen it, now that he’s rooted in our sense of place, Walerski’s determined to lure the cat out of its bag.

      “It’s time for the secrets to be revealed,” he says, “and for Vancouverites to celebrate their home-based company.”

      So, Vancouver: what are you waiting for?