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Choreographer Medhi Walerski will replace Ballet BC artistic director Emily Molnar when she departs in June.

PIROSCHKA VAN DE WOUW/The Globe and Mail

Ballet BC has named French-born Medhi Walerski as its next artistic director, succeeding the celebrated Emily Molnar. Walerski is currently a freelance choreographer associated with Nederlands Dans Theater, where he was a company dancer until four years ago. Molnar, departing in June, moves on to lead NDT.

Walerski is well known to Vancouver audiences as one of several Europeans whose choreography has defined Ballet BC under Molnar. His appointment suggests the company will stay on its present track, which has brought a steep rise in visibility. Over the past decade, the west coast troupe has established itself as Canada’s little company that could, building a national and international reputation for its sleek, contemporary aesthetic and powerful dancers (presently 16, plus five “emerging artists”).

In some ways, Walerski and Ballet BC have grown up together. When his first Ballet BC commission, Petite Cérémonie, premiered in 2011, the company was re-establishing itself locally. He’d made his choreographic debut, Mammatus, just three years earlier, with NDT.

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Ballet BC premiered his first full-length narrative ballet, Romeo + Juliet, at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in February, 2018. The next month, it launched a high-profile British tour at Sadler’s Wells.

“I have known Ballet BC for almost nine years,” Walerski said by phone, “and always felt it was my second home.”

The experience of creating Romeo + Juliet proved seminal. “I had to work with a lot of people,” Walerski says, referring to the large cast, bolstered by Arts Umbrella preprofessional dancers, and to the introduction of sword training. “I started to enjoy the organizational aspect of creating, and how to schedule and program.” Now, as an artistic director, “I can bring all I’ve learned as a dancer and choreographer to the company. It can really be my vision.”

The classically trained 40 year old began his career dancing with Paris Opera Ballet, but quickly left, finding he “didn’t connect” with its rigid hierarchy. He found his first home with the more contemporary Nederlands Dans Theater, moving up through NDT 2 (the youth group) to NDT 1 (the main company).

“The environment Emily has created at Ballet BC connects to my heritage,” Walerski says. Both the Canadian and the much larger Dutch company have an egalitarian approach to creation, in which “everyone in the room is responsible as an individual and as part of the collective.”

Yet Melina Buckley, the Ballet BC board member who led the artistic director search committee, describes casting a wide net for the job. Extensive community consultations included dance presenters and agents, locally and worldwide, who know Ballet BC, both in order to get the word out “and to get their perspective on what was important in terms of our selection criteria.”

They also checked in with donors and funding organizations, and spoke internally with the dancers and administrative staff.

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Almost 60 applications came from Canada, the United States, Europe, Australia and Central America. Buckley says a crucial factor in making the shortlist was choreographic experience: “We think it’s important as a way of understanding how to work with dancers. But we didn’t want to hire someone who was only interested in presenting their own work.”

Walerski intends to continue Ballet BC’s investment in new commissions. As for his own contributions, he says, “I will pace myself. I’ll have a lot to do leading the company and researching new voices to bring in.” He believes it’s also important to perform works by the masters. Names won’t be announced until his programming kicks in with the 2021-22 season, but an obvious choice would be Jiri Kylian, the Czech choreographer and former NDT artistic director whose work he has danced.

“The need to ensure that the quality of the dancers and their training continues was the first thing identified through our consultations,” says Ballet BC executive director John Clark. “And Medhi has worked so seamlessly with them, bringing out some incredible talent.”

Walerski says he wants to introduce new kinds of dancer training, as yet unspecified, although “conversations” with other forms are important to him. He is presently studying somatic psychology, which considers “the body as a vehicle for awakening and expression,” and recently took an acting course at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

“It would be amazing to have a young company, Ballet BC 2,” he says, pointing to the handful of emerging artists already mentored by Ballet BC each season.

Choreographic workshops are also on his mind. “Ballet BC,” Walerski says, “has to remain a creative house, with a repertoire that challenges the dancers and the audience.”

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