Screaming electric guitar and ballet aren’t necessarily things you would associate with each other. But, sure enough, Jimi Hendrix’s Blues album is blasting from the Ballet BC rehearsal-studio stereo as dancers race and slide across the floor. The troupe members, who have made an international name for their fearlessness, are tapping a new kind of energy.
They’ve found their groove—an apt metaphor to mark artistic director Emily Molnar’s 10th season helming the company.
“I’ve always wanted to do something with blues or jazz music,” says Molnar, who choreographed the new untitled work for the season opener, relaxing afterward in a nearby empty studio. “What I’m attracted to in blues is that such sorrow is sung through joy. It’s the opposition of the very dark with the uplifting. There’s a wildness and chaos.…It’s about living and being human.”
The confidence, the freedom, and the voice the company is expressing are an apt celebration of what Ballet BC has accomplished in just under a decade. When Molnar took the reins, Ballet BC’s future was uncertain, its finances grim enough for it to file for bankruptcy protection, and it hadn’t toured in years. Slowly, methodically, she’s rebuilt its reputation—locally, nationally, and internationally.
The company enters the 2018-19 season financially stable, with a plan to tour for 12 weeks—the maximum it can handle, and a dream Molnar has brought to fruition. Amid its planned stops: Luxembourg and Darmstadt, Germany, in December, Tel Aviv and Alberta in January, and additional visits across Canada, the U.S., and Europe in the spring. The troupe is riding the buzz it received on a jaunt earlier this year to the U.K., when it sold out London dance mecca Sadler’s Wells and the Independent praised its “gorgeous energy”.
Touring, Molnar says, has helped the company grow. “It develops a larger conversation with multiple communities,” she explains. “The commonality between the audiences has been that they say, ‘We see so many companies where one or two [dancers] stand out, but with this one all of them stand out with the same intention.’”
In addition, the artistic director has brought on two new emerging artists (formerly called apprentices), making five now in total, meaning there are a lot of fresh faces in the Blues piece. “We’re developing ideally toward a junior company, a Ballet BC 2,” she reveals.
It’s all on her mind as Ballet BC launches a strategic plan this season, setting out its goals for the next three years and beyond.
“The first 10 years are always hard, but maybe more obvious about what needs to be done,” Molnar explains, adding that when she began, the main objective was simply to mount a show. “Now it’s a more interesting conversation. The growth for us is continuing to ask questions, to hold true to our pioneering spirit of 10 years ago, to challenge the way we’re doing things.…What does it mean to be a dance artist in this country right now?”
With all these ideas swirling through her mind, Molnar has crafted a season that pointedly pays tribute to what the company has achieved, while pushing it forward into new terrain. In Program One, she brings back an audience favourite, Petite Cérémonie, Paris Opera Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theater alumnus Medhi Walerski’s whimsical mix of white boxes and dancers in formal black tuxedos and dresses.
“It was our first conversation with Medhi, and he was an emerging choreographer at the time, so it has nostalgia for us,” says Molnar. “When you see the piece today it is still incredibly fresh and alive. And also, we’re still very much that company.”
Sharing the program is William Forsythe’s 1989 work Enemy in the Figure, with its extreme, speed-of-sound balletic movement and its beyond-virtuosic technique, all set to Thom Willems’s driving electro score, and with a central rope prop. “A reason for bringing it is because of what it does for the dancers,” enthuses Molnar, who has been hoping to mount the piece, by her former mentor at Frankfurt Ballet, here for years. “The dancers are responsible for moving a lot of the set pieces and the lights and the rope. And the audiences are gifted with seeing something built in 1989 and still relevant. It’s such a fully realized piece of theatre—a gorgeous piece of architecture.”
Contrasting both those works on the program is her own Blues-based creation—a work she’s using to showcase the dancers, who built it using their own solo riffs on Hendrix’s indelible music.
“Blues was a development of music for a community of people that were labouring,” Molnar elaborates. “That made me think, ‘What is voice, collective voice, individual voice?’ ”
She also took a lot of inspiration from the era when Hendrix made the music, between 1966 and 1970, though the album was released posthumously. It was a time of revolution and freedom, of everything from Woodstock to Martin Luther King and civil rights.
“That’s the energy: ‘Today is all we have,’” Molnar says.
As it turns out, the challenge hasn’t been so much getting a group of highly honed ballet dancers to tap their raw individuality; it’s been preserving that spontaneous energy for when it finally hits the stage.
“Yes, the research pulls people to places they weren’t aware they were capable of,” Molnar says. “But I created a place with them where they’re connecting with sensation, so they built a very personal connection. And the challenge has been ‘How do we keep that essence?’ ”
It’s a question, it seems, that she’ll be applying to the whole season, and the next decade to come.
Ballet BC presents Program One at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre from Thursday to Saturday (November 1 to 3).