Ballet B.C. opens busy season with a bang

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It’s a Wednesday morning in the studio at the Dance Centre, and the mood is palpably upbeat. Ballet B.C. dancers are swishing around to the Crakow Klezmer Band’s manic rhythms, in a witty flurry of one-man waltzes, scurrying huddles, and pseudo-macho dudes kissing their own flexed biceps. Their leader and choreographer Emily Molnar is shouting out teasingly at them while counting the beat in eights: “ ‘Look at my beautiful muscles.’ ” “Keep it light, you guys!” As if sensing the vibe, the sun has broken through the clouds for the first time in a week, shooting rays into the studio.

It’s clear from this sneak peek at what is by far her most playful work for the company that Molnar is in a happy mood these days. And for good reason.

After four years of careful rebuilding with Molnar at the helm, Ballet B.C. is getting ready to launch its most ambitious season since its financial near-death in 2008. For the opening mixed program, called In/Verse, Molnar has scored a coup: her own work will debut alongside that of two red-hot contemporary choreographers: American Nicolo Fonte, as well as Euro sensation Jacopo Godani in his first Canadian appearance. The ensuing season will also bring an Ontario tour that hits the National Arts Centre, a trip to Portland’s prestigious White Bird Dance series, and the debut, in April, of its first full-length story ballet since its rebirth: a contemporary revisioning of the ultimate tutu ballet, Giselle, created by choreographer-in-residence and new audience favourite José Navas. Meanwhile, a new executive director brought in from Britain, Branislav Henselmann, is working hard to forge international connections and secure future tours for a troupe that has been largely Vancouver-bound for the last several years.

“We’re at the point now where we can say, ‘Where are we going to be in five years?’ And we couldn’t do that, honestly, when I came on,” Molnar says with a smile before the rehearsal, taking a brief break in her Dance Centre office after her own morning dance class. “We’ve had to watch how people respond, how the city responds to our work, and that takes a while. Now, going into year four, we’re starting to see positive feedback that we’re going in the right direction.

“So it’s not about doing something different now. It’s about getting it out there.”

When she arrived to try to save the company in 2009, it was all about survival. These days, though, Molnar isn’t afraid to talk about her dreams for Ballet B.C. Among her ideas is expanding the apprenticeship program, and even working toward having a junior company that could tour the province.

At the same time, she continues her mandate of bringing Vancouverites some of the top talent in the world. For In/Verse, she presents Godani, who she became close with as a dancer at Frankfurt Ballet, and who is in demand by the likes of Nederlands Dans Theatre and the Royal Danish Ballet. He’s bringing A.U.R.A. (Anarchist Unit Related to Art) here: an intricate, adrenalized piece set against a raw, urban electroacoustic score. “There’s this collective energy to his work: it’s like a single organism that works together and keeps changing and expanding,” Molnar raves. “Audiences love it because it’s so visceral and immediate—and it’s very virtuosic.”

In an illustration of the dancers’ range, they’re also taking on the elegant, en-pointe contemporary ballet of Fonte, who will premiere Muse, set to strings, that he created specifically for the company. “This is one of the greatest compliments we could get: he said, ‘I feel like I can just concentrate on making a work and not spend time getting the dancers to understand what I mean,’ ” Molnar says. “He said from day one that he felt like he was home.”

For her own In/Verse work, called Aniel, Molnar was inspired directly by the soulful, percussive klezmer music, which was written by genre-hopping saxophonist and provocateur John Zorn. “I wanted to make a piece about play, about whimsy—it’s a bit absurd and odd,” says Molnar, who will put the dancers in bright colours against a plain white stage.

She’s using all 17 of her dancers, and admits it’s a big departure for her. In fact, it’s something she probably could have only explored with the corps she now knows so well after four years. “They take a lot of risks with me,” she admits.

Certainly, in the studio, the process seems like a lot of fun. But push Molnar, and you realize how hard it still is to continue rebuilding a company while creating a new work. “The other side is I have to do all these other things,” she admits before heading into the studio. “I know there are grants that need to be done. But I’ve said, ‘I’m at a point where I have to do my piece.’ So that’s my greatest challenge. That’s why I only do one piece a year; if there were any more, something else would suffer.”

Ballet B.C.’s In/Verse is at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre from next Thursday to Saturday (November 22 to 24).

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