Western Washington professors team up with Northwest Ballet Theater in creating a new ballet called "Emerald Bay." It debuts May 15, 2011, at UW's Meany Hall.

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It’s Bellingham’s version of “Romeo and Juliet.”

“We wanted to do an original ballet,” said Christopher Wise, an English professor at Western Washington University. “So we asked, why not do a ballet on our own region?”

This Sunday, Northwest Ballet Theater debuts “Emerald Bay,” a production based on a controversial chapter in the region’s history.

The story is set in 1885, when, in response to an economic downturn, Bellingham leaders drove Chinese residents out of the city. The townspeople made scapegoats of Chinese immigrants for the lack of jobs, and celebrated their exodus with a torchlight parade and fireworks. In the ballet, in a “Romeo and Juliet” twist, a Chinese sea captain and a young Scots-Irish woman fall in love, igniting their families’ hatred.

“The Chinese built the railroads in the West and the Irish build them in the East,” said Wise. “This is a story about them meeting in the middle.”

Although the romance is fiction, the backdrop is not. The ballet features such prominent historical figures as Fairhaven founder Dirty Dan Harris; honorary consul of China, Goon Dip; and Mark Twain.

Actually, Bellingham’s Fairhaven region used to have a marker that read “Chinese Deadline: No Chinese Allowed Beyond This Point 1898-1903.” Any Chinese person who crossed that line could be shot without repercussions for the shooter.

Professor Ning Yu came across that marker as he was exploring the city when he started teaching American literature at Western in 1993.

“I thought the Pacific Northwest was a pretty enlightened place,” said Yu, who plays Goon Dip in the production. “So now I remind my students that racism is not necessarily somewhere far down South. It can be really close.”

Last year marked the 125th anniversary of the Chinese expulsion of 1885, recognized through a series of events throughout the Seattle area.

“I didn’t even know there was this story about the Chinese in this small city until they brought it up,” said Jianna Zhang, former president of the Northwest Chinese Cultural Association and a computer-science professor at Western. “I was kind of touched by this group … They are trying to educate.”

Zhang choreographed the Chinese dance part of the ballet. There are also Irish and Scottish styles in the performance.

And while the 40-some members of the cast are from Northwest Ballet Theater, the two principal dancers are not. It was easy finding the female lead — Christina Stockdale hails from Ballet Bellevue. But visa problems plagued the search for the Chinese male lead, so they settled on someone closer — Shuai Chen of Ballet San Jose.

“I’ve worked in ballet for 45 years, and created more than 50 original productions,” said John Bishop, the artistic director. “But this show is the most challenging and unique.”

Marian Liu: 206-464-3825 or mliu@seattletimes.com