Ballet BC’s Emily Molnar captures fleeting memories with new dance work in Program 3

Hot off a hit European tour and preparing for her 10th season, the artistic director and choreographer finds herself in a reflective mood

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      Haunting violins and vocalizations are filling Ballet BC’s downtown studio. In the troupe’s run-through of Emily Molnar’s new and as-yet-untitled work, 16 dancers move restlessly through the space, occasionally grasping at something invisible between their hands, like they don’t want to let go of it but can’t quite hang on to it.

      Metaphorically, anyway, it’s memory they’re grappling with—or at least choreographer Molnar is. When she started listening to the looping, layered strings and voices of Latvian composer Peteris Vask’s mesmerizing Plainscapes, the theme emerged clearly. And in a unique collaboration, it will be performed live in Ballet BC’s season-ending Program 3 by the Phoenix Chamber Choir (with violinist David Gillham and cellist Oskar Falta).

      “Memories are fleeting and they come and go, and we need to hold on to them,” Molnar says on a break afterward. “The more things start to go the more you want to hold on to them. This urgency comes from the desire to live. And the piece is about leaving and saying goodbye.”

      Wanting for years to work with Phoenix conductor Graeme Langager, Molnar had been searching for the right composition to bring choral music together with dance. And Vask’s cycling, slow-building Plainscapes, with its wordless expression, spoke directly to her. “I have to feel like this,” she says, pulling at the front of her sweater. “I have to be pulled in or I can’t do it. This felt that way, like there was a mystery inside it.

      “I also liked the challenges of it being so short and dealing with having a beginning and a middle and an end within that,” she adds of the 16-minute work, which finds the dancers emerging from and disappearing into darkness, like fleeting recollections. “I love that they’re not speaking anything in particular. Their voices become this other world. So I immediately saw this full landscape of the full company describing a person.”

      Ballet BC dancers Emily Chessa and Peter Smida.
      Michael Slobodian

      The theme of memory seems fitting, because Molnar, on the brink of celebrating her 10th season with the company, is in a reflective mood.

      She and her company are just back from a successful tour of the U.K and Germany—a journey that took them from London out to stops like Brighton, Newcastle, and Birmingham, and then, in early April, to the Movimentos Festival in Wolfsburg, Germany. Amid its achievements, the company sold out London’s dance cathedral Sadler’s Wells. The Guardian raved in its review of the show there, “it’s exhilarating to see the confidence with which Vancouver-based Ballet British Columbia takes the stage”.

      “I’ve toured a lot in my life as a dancer. It was an incredibly important tour, and I just needed to keep grounding the company,” Molnar says. “They were very fond of the commitment of the company and were very complimentary of the technical ability of the dancers.”

      Several critics celebrated the fact that the program, with work by Crystal Pite, Sharon Eyal, and Molnar herself, showcased three female choreographers—and it made Molnar proud to think that wasn’t unusual for her troupe.

      “We did this before it was such a big topic,” she explains. “So I was proud of us as Canadians that we were already on this—and also just being Canadian ambassadors and for them to see that level of work from us, being from out West.”

      Molnar and her company had to rehearse her new work while on the road, but she says the chance to practise it in large venues, similar to the scale of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre here, gave her a chance to sculpt it for the stage.

      But working on the fly has its challenges, and here Molnar again stops to praise the high-level artists she’s recruited into her troupe.

      “The dancers are great to research stuff with—they help me a great deal. I don’t know if I could make the work I’m making without that intimacy,” she says. “We’ve built a common language of understanding.”

      Over the course of her near-decade reign, which started in 2009 with a company on the verge of collapse, those dancers’ weeks of work have increased from 28 to around 45. Looking ahead, Molnar wants to up that figure even more, to a full schedule. And she wants to keep pushing touring, while balancing it with a strong schedule of programming here at home.

      The tour, she says, “gave me the sense that we have to keep doing this, to watch the work keep growing”.

      Expect her to scatter those travels throughout next season and to revisit some old favourites from her 10 years of creation and curation, as well as some bold new work. (Ballet BC plans to announce that new season on Program 3’s opening night.)

      Molnar’s past decade has provided many memories she wants to hold on to, but it’s clear she’s laser-focused on pushing the company, and dance, into the future.

      Ballet BC presents Program 3 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre from next Thursday to Saturday (May 10 to 12).