Ballet BC marks 30 years by dancing into bold new terrain

Artistic director Emily Molnar reflects on her own career and the reasons she’s forging an innovative kind of company.

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      It’s a surreal sight, but somehow it encapsulates everything about where Ballet BC sits today, on its 30th anniversary.

      Dancers are ricocheting around the sunlit studio, bookended by the two black-and-white signs that performers will later hoist up and walk across the stage. One, tucked into the barres at one end, reads THIS IS A BEGINNING. The other says THIS IS NOT THE END.

      The piece they’re rehearsing is artistic director Emily Molnar’s 16+ a room, a clever play on time and space where the dancers often move like they’re trapped in an ever-tilting box.

      The larger picture is that Ballet BC, for all the ground it’s gained in its recent years, is still just beginning to reach its potential. Or at least that’s what Molnar thinks. And her dancers are gamely finding their footing in an ever-changing roster of new work.

      Ballet BC is a rarity in the dance world. It’s one of the few major ballet companies in the world, let alone Canada, run by a woman. Since taking over in 2009, Molnar has created a unique model for the troupe: one that is project-based and tours large-scale new work, but that also has a steady rep season in its home city. Instead of featuring one or two in-house creators, it’s generating an unusually long roster of commissions by international contemporary names. And its touring is taking off. In its 2013 and 2015 appearances at Massachusetts’s influential Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Ballet BC won rave reviews and standing Os.

      This year, in May and June, Ballet BC heads to the U.K. for the first time, as well as to New York’s Joyce Theater. The program it’s taking out into the world will be similar to the one it debuts here this week, with Israeli sensation Sharon Eyal’s club-beat-driven Bill, and Molnar’s cleverly reworked 16+ a room. On the road, those works join Vancouver star Crystal Pite’s wintry, poetic take on mortality, Solo Echo; in the show here, Program 3, they join the remount of the ever-spinning I and I Am You by Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo.

      “We just want to get out to some major festivals now; those doors are starting to open, and getting an agent has been a big part of it,” Molnar says in her office on a break from rehearsal. “We’re going to Birmingham, so that’s a start. I think it will show itself more over the next few years.

      “What I’m happy about right now is I feel so grateful and inspired that our audience is open to a discussion about what dance is—that they are open to going on the journey with us. I’m happy they question the piece and get thrilled about it, and it’s not always having to be this end thing that is good or bad. They go there with us and we want to keep going there.”

      When Molnar took over in 2009, it was still unclear whether those risks would pay off. The regional company was coming off of more than a decade of neoclassical ballet and had filed for bankruptcy. What it had been doing was not working. And Molnar saw that so many ballet companies, like the Royal Winnipeg and the National, were visiting the city that the troupe would have to seriously differentiate itself from its competition.

      Looking back, Molnar can see things more clearly.

      “I was given an opportunity at a time for the company where we either try something and really try to do it, we really try to be contemporary…or we don’t survive,” she explains. “And we know to just exist in Vancouver doesn’t make sense. If we’re going to make contemporary art, we need to move outside of our city. You need to have an international conversation and that does require a company to tour.…To try to do it we have to say, ‘This isn’t going to be just one person, this is going to be many people coming to this conversation.’ And our audience showed up for it. They didn’t say no, they actually went, ‘Oh, I had no idea that ballet and now dance in general could look like this.’ ”

      The choreographers who have joined “this conversation” so far include Kevin O’Day, Cayetano Soto, and Stijn Celis. In the upcoming program, Eyal’s edgy, techno-driven Bill, an urban-tribal epic that puts the dancers in matching nude bodysuits, will push the company into new movement vocabulary, and a work by Israeli star Ohad Naharin on the roster next season will mark another strong statement. Talk to any visiting choreographer about why they’ve travelled to this relatively remote city to work and they will tell you it’s because of the exciting reputation of Ballet BC, and the versatility and skill of its corps. As Belgian talent Celis told the Straight last year, “They are phenomenal dancers; they’re so open and so hungry.”

      Emily Molnar (centre), with Kirsten Wicklund and Brett Perry.
      Emily Cooper

      To understand where Ballet BC sits today, it helps to reflect on Molnar’s personal journey.

      Rigorously trained at the National Ballet School of Canada from the young age of 10, she went on to dance for that company before being handpicked as a soloist for William Forsythe’s seminal Frankfurt Ballet. Even there, in her early 20s, she was already focusing on the administrative side.

      “I would just always study the company. I would just go, ‘So why are we doing this?’ ‘How are we coaching?’ ‘Why are we directing audiences to this?’ ” she explains. “I guess that made me a bit of a difficult dancer, because it wasn’t about me, it was about why were we doing this whole thing and how were we doing this whole thing. I wanted to know that everything we were doing was about moving the art form forward. It wasn’t just about my name on the casting list. It would have been easier if it was.”

      Molnar came back to Canada in 1998 to join Ballet BC as a principal dancer under John Alleyne. There, she made her name with signature roles like Puck in his story ballet The Faerie Queen.

      In 2003, she left to pursue her choreography. And Molnar admits now it was a rough period when she stopped dancing.

      “I was questioning dancing,” she reveals. “When I left, I thought I was going to quit, and I said, ‘You can study anthropology.’ Because I was defeated by the politics of dance, not dance itself. I just didn’t know that at the time. I thought I just didn’t want to dance anymore, but just didn’t know how to do it anymore. It wasn’t because of anything I didn’t get from a company. It was because something in me wanted to do it a different way or something wasn’t lining up and I needed to reconnect.”

      She started to find her purpose by directing kids’ programs for Arts Umbrella, where she now regularly recruits dancers and apprentices. “I said, ‘Okay, I’m getting as much out of this as I would dancing,’ ” she says candidly. “I was like 25, 26, and that really screwed me up! I thought, ‘This is exactly when I’m supposed to want to dance. These are the years to dance; I’m not 15 and I’m not 45. So these are the years and I’m not happy.’ But directing these kids and having that conversation: that made me very happy.”

      None of it really made sense, she reveals, till she started the job of rebuilding Ballet BC, taking its helm in the wake of its near-death financial crisis.

      “It didn’t mean I wanted to stop being an artist; it didn’t mean I didn’t want to keep being creative. I just didn’t need to keep being the dancer on-stage in front of the audience anymore,” she says. “I knew I didn’t want to start a company just based on my own work. I really wanted to learn and work with people that had ideas. Producing—I really love that role where you’re putting things together, you’re curating and hosting other people to help and support them.”

      Molnar stresses that Ballet BC’s new model might not have worked elsewhere. She credits the 30-year presence of the company, along with an openness in this city to contemporary art—an openness, she says, that’s been cultivated everywhere from the interdisciplinary PuSh International Performing Arts Festival to Dancing on the Edge. At the same time, Vancouver’s dance culture as a whole is garnering international buzz, whether it’s through Pite, who’s working everywhere from London to The Hague to Paris these days, or Arts Umbrella, which is currently feeding graduates to the world’s top contemporary-dance companies—including Nederlands Dans Theater and Batsheva Dance. 

      And as for Molnar, these days she’s known as a mentor and coach as much as an artistic director—a position that makes her laugh when she recalls someone once telling her she was too nice to direct a company (a comment that is probably offered to a lot of women).

      “I love discussing the work with the artists, I love getting in there and saying, ‘How are we doing?’ I mean, we put as much attention on process as we do on performance,” she explains. “There are some companies that just aim at performance and they just perform and perform.…But we want to treat a work in a certain way. That takes time in the studio: it’s not just about learning a step, it’s about actually discussing what it is. But we also have a lot of work we have to get through. That does make it a challenge.”

      That means this is not the end of the hard work of making Ballet BC a bold, one-of-a-kind company. It is, and perhaps will be as long as Molnar helms the troupe, a beginning.

      Ballet BC presents Program 3 from Thursday to Saturday (May 12 to 14).