Ballet BC is an internationally acclaimed collaborative and creation-based contemporary ballet company that is a leader and resource in the creation, production and education of contemporary dance in Canada. The Company’s continuing success can be attributed to Artistic Director Emily Molnar who, since her start in 2009, has developed a repertoire of more than 45 news works by acclaimed Canadian and international choreographers, including William Forsythe, Cayetano Soto, Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar, Medhi Walerski, Ohad Naharin, Crystal Pite and Johan Inger, among many others.
Molnar’s illustrious dance career includes being a member of the National Ballet of Canada, a soloist with the Ballet Frankfurt under director Forsythe and a principal dancer with Ballet BC. Molnar is also a critically acclaimed choreographer and has created works for Alberta Ballet, Ballet Mannheim, Ballet Augsburg, Cedar Lake Dance, ProArteDanza, Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company and New York City Ballet’s Choreographic Institute.
Her numerous artistic accolades include being named The Globe and Mail’s 2013 Dance Artist of the Year, the 2016 recipient of the Vancouver Mayor’s Arts Award, BC Community Achievement Award and the YWCA Women of Distinction Award in Art Culture & Design. It was also recently announced that Molnar will be leaving Ballet BC to become the new dance director of Netherlands Dance Theater.
We ask Molnar about the journey Dallas audiences will take, the dancers’ daringness on stage and how she feels about the next phase of her career with Netherlands Dance Theater.
TheaterJones: When putting together a program like the one you will be presenting in Dallas what factors do you consider?
Emily Molnar: There are so many different people and levels of conversation that I keep looking at whenever I am trying to put anything together. One of the first things is that there is a choreographer that really has something to say. That is really investing in where dance is today. And I know they are going to bring that into the studio first, and work with our dancers on that conversation to help develop an artist, develop a performer and develop a comment through dance on society.
And then I look at the other side of it, which is when I put anything together what is the experience that our audience is going to go through. What can we offer them as a journey? What can we offer them as a reminder of our humanity or a conversation? But, of course, it’s not up to us to decide that because as you know the performing art is about a conversation. We all can enjoy dancing in and moving in our kitchen. That’s a beautiful thing and it’s very much about being alive. But once you ask someone to be on the other side of that and be in the theater with you then the responsibility you have as a dancer and a choreographer is to really say something with that. To really speak to the people and share ideas through dance with someone. And so I’m always looking at how the whole evening will create something that may raise questions or move an audience to a different observation.
The other gorgeous thing about dance is of all the art forms we are the least documented. The minute that show is over it is a residual. It’s something that echoes in each of us and that’s what’s left. And so that is also a very beautiful thing. A very unique thing about dance. So when I try to put an evening together I’m very aware of diversity. Of variations on ideas that will as a whole create an experience for our audience and create an experience for the artists within the work. And, one that will also help move a choreographer’s artistic vision forward as well.
For those coming to see Ballet BC for the first time how would you describe your dancers to them?
I can speak from the point of view of what I look for when I am hiring someone, which I do think is what the audience feels at the end of the day, and the responses I get from them. I hear things like generosity and daringness. They can absolutely see the training because we have a classical root that is evident in the type of virtuosity of the body and of the daringness within the way the dancers approach the work.
When we went to Europe last year, I kept hearing audience members say ‘You know, I see a lot of really great dancers, but what we don’t always see is a collective of people that are so clearly on the same path. That are so clearly with the same intention.’ And I think that is really the first thing people feel with our dancers is that they collectively are on the same page. That they are together with a clear intention and then each of them can rise to their own occasions as individuals within that.
I also think people appreciate the virtuosity. That we have a group of dancers who can walk through many different styles of work fluently, and that is very much the hallmark of what the company is about. That we can essentially, as much as possible, be a company that would be every choreographers’ company. That we could go deeply into each person’s process with this type of openness and a toolbox that’s wide enough that we can jump to a different style. And with each year we get stronger in that. Of course, it’s always a big learning curve, but I do think we have very opened and curious artists inside the company. Also, energetically the dancers break down that fourth wall. We really focus on the idea of who’s sitting on the other side is as important as those people that are on stage.
How would you describe Ballet BC’s dance aesthetic?
As far as stylistically what they will see, whether it’s ballet or contemporary, I will say that it’s all of it. It’s a woven tapestry of the very first of the training of that classical dancer, which is the person that’s in the company, but with a lot of training and contemporary aspects of dance. So, what you are going to see stylistically is really the appetite of contemporary ballet today or contemporary dance I would say.
There are so many different ways to go around it, but at the end of the day what you’re seeing more than ever is that the body is an enormous vehicle for expression and we have choreographers today who are able to tap into that. And we have dancers who can tap into that more than ever because every year in schools and companies and choreographic processes around the world we are getting wiser and more sophisticated each time we make a work. You can see that there has been an evolution from what we were able to do 30 years ago, and I think that’s very exciting and what I do like about what we are offering audiences is that we are still making the body the most important expression out on the stage.
At what point in your career did you begin exploring the business side of running a dance company?
It kind of came into my life as early as probably when I was still training in the National Ballet School. I started asking a lot of questions, and I’d often think I was the most challenged dancer in the room because I was fascinated with the creative process and making new work and all of the things that are involved in collaborating with a choreographer. So from the age of 12 I was hypnotized by working with choreographers, but at the same time when I started dancing in companies what I also started looking at was how are we coming together as a company? How are we coaching dancers? How are people being cast? How are we talking to audiences? How are we curating evenings? And I didn’t realize what I was doing, but I started to become very curious about the mechanics of a company. The mechanics of developing a dancer and developing work and I kept thinking ‘Hmm why do I find those as interesting as myself dancing’ and I used to use those questions to help me better myself as a dancer.
By the age of 26 I started to realize I needed other things to come into my life so I could still mature as a performer. I started teaching creative process classes at that point. I also started running a company for youth, and then I started to want to bite off different responsibilities. I just wanted more information, and I wanted to take on more responsibilities. And I went freelance at one point where I was writing all my grants and putting projects together and developing myself as a freelance choreographer. And that’s when all of the management side per say came in and I realized it was starting to complement those other questions I had about the mechanics of running things. That’s when I realized that I have always wanted to direct from a very young age, but I needed certain pieces of the puzzle to come together through my own various experiences in order to help me do the job I am doing right now.
Were there many females in leadership roles in other dance companies when you started working with Ballet BC a decade ago?
I’ll speak specifically to Canada because our ballet companies were founded, most all of them I think, by women — ironically, [they were] not run by women all of the time. We are a female-dominated profession so you would think if anywhere in any profession you would be seeing more female leaders it would be in dance. That was definitely something I was aware of when I started, but I am a person in the way I live my life where again I tend to not put boxes around anything. I am eager for the day where we don’t have to identify ourselves as male or female or anything. Where we can literally be a unique version of ourselves and so I look forward to fewer labels and not more.
So, I never really saw myself as a female or a female trying to be a leader. I just thought I have an idea. I want to try to do this. I do know that the roadblocks getting there were different for me not just because I was a female, but I also didn’t walk out of a ballet company as a principal dancer. So, there are certain politics around directing and I knew I was asking very important questions and I didn’t have the solutions, but the fact that I was even asking them I would hope would make me a positive young leader. But whether I’d ever get an opportunity to exercise those I was absolutely very aware that may never happen. Unless I was willing to start my own company from scratch, which I questioned for many years, because if what I want to build already exists then it shouldn’t be built. There needs to be a need for what I would be building and I didn’t want a company that was just about my own work. I wanted a company that was about many peoples work. And so I felt already that Ballet BC existed and I felt there were other companies that existed in that manner. So it wasn’t about me making a company. It would have to be about me coming into a company that needed a new director.
What can we do to help nurture female leaders in dance going forward?
I think this issue is more prevalent in the ballet world than the contemporary dance world. We have a lot female choreographers and female directors at their own companies in the contemporary dance world. But in the ballet world I would agree there’s an enormous intelligence in the female voice that is, thank goodness, now being more observed. But I also think it starts much earlier if you ask my opinion, which is how are we as leaders using our platform to really make this an initiative. I don’t think it’s a lack of talent. We need to start at a very young age at addressing people’s questions. So, when you see a young person whether they’re male or female if they have a desire we need to start to give them opportunities much earlier on. And allow them to build confidence so that when they do develop in their careers that they feel like they can try.
Congrats on your new role as dance director of Netherlands Dance Theater. What prompted this move?
I am definitely in the early stages of this transition and so what I can say is it’s a great time for a new director to come in to Ballet BC. We’re healthy and things are much different than they were 10 year ago so I feel very excited for the company. There’s also a lot of directors that have an interest in the company, so I think it is also a beautiful opportunity for a new leader to come in. I wasn’t searching this out to be completely honest. I did know that if I was going to do my job well as a leader I need to look at just not what I do within an organization, but also how I leave an organization. So, I was aware that in the next few years it would probably be a positive choice for me to move on so that someone else can come in and refresh the button, and just bring me a new point of view within the organization and also for our audiences.
My decision has nothing to do with not wanting to stay at Ballet BC. This opportunity with Netherlands Dance Theater was just something I couldn’t turn down. It is also an opportunity for me to take a new step and I am excited about that. It is a gorgeous company and it still falls in line with a lot of the things that I’ve been working on and I am excited to see what I can bring to that beautiful legacy of the company and also to their future potential. And I am also excited to see what’s going to happen Ballet BC.
>This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.