By almost any measure, Ballet B.C. has had a landmark year. It's received top billing and standing ovations on a tour that's included Jacob's Pillow and Canada's National Arts Centre, it's debuted its first contemporary story ballet in years, and it's ready to launch a season that boasts new works by hot names like Ballet Mannheim Artistic Director Kevin O'Day and Cayetano Soto.
It's hard to believe that just over four years, ago, it was limping along, coming perilously close to going under. For onlookers, its dramatic turnaround has been a study in how to revive a ballet company amid hard financial times.
In late 2008, the company sought bankruptcy protection and temporarily laid off its staff, citing mounting debt and a drop in subscriptions and ticket sales. The organization went on to announce the departure of long-time artistic director John Alleyne, who had been brought on in 1992 after a string of people at the helm. (The company had been founded in 1986.) More disappointingly, the company announced it would not be mounting a full subscription season during the 2009-2010 season, nor would it be taking part in the high-profile Cultural Olympiad at Vancouver's 2010 Olympics.
The situation looked grim until the hiring of dancer and choreographer Emily Molnar as artistic director mid-way through 2009. By choosing Molnar to steer the company in a new direction, Ballet B.C. was making it clear it planned to continue building its identity by pushing the edge of contemporary ballet and not turning backward, as feared, to safer, more traditional fare.
Months before she was even appointed, when she heard of Ballet B.C.'s financial struggles, Molnar had said: "It's not a time to say, 'We've got to stop taking risks.' It's not a time to retreat."
In many ways, she was the ideal candidate. Her recent gigs had included performing in a piece by Mannheim Ballet's O'Day and seeing the London and New York premieres of her Six Fold Illuminate for Christopher Wheeldon's red-hot new trans-Atlantic ballet troupe, Morphoses. She had worked on small, intimate projects as well as setting pieces on large companies of dancers with live orchestras. Her training was rooted in the classical rigours of the National Ballet of Canada, but her own company, Emily Molnar Dance, was making a name for pieces that fit easily into Vancouver's thriving contemporary-dance scene.
She'd had the benefit of working closely with such internationally renowned choreographers as Frankfurt Ballet's William Forsythe and Canadian modern-dance icon Margie Gillis. And yet she had an intimate knowledge of Ballet B.C.: she was the company's star member in the successful late '90s and early 2000s.
Her vision was clear: instead of making the company a vehicle for her own choreography, as Alleyne had done, she'd use her myriad European and North American contacts to bring in some of the hottest up-and-coming choreographers to set work on the troupe. At the same time, she'd build the virtuosity and technique of her dancers, drawing classically trained dancers who craved the challenge and variety of new contemporary work. Her troupe today spans everyone from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet-trained Makaila Wallace and Peter Smida to the crop-haired Rachel Meyer. The latter, a Houston's Dominic Walsh Dance Theater alumnus, echoed other dancers when she told me, "I was looking for a company that was doing new creative works with different styles and different choreographers."
Molnar worked slowly but intentionally, working within the company's limited budget and building Ballet B.C. as a place where audiences could always discover something new. She mounted a scaled-down season at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre with existing work by the likes of William Forsythe and Itzak Galili, at first mixing that with programming risky new work at unexpected venues like the casual, intimate Dances for a Small Stage program. Local audiences and critics liked what they saw. Early on, her team staged a "Take Our Tutus" campaign that found dozens of the fluffy skirts hung before morning rush hour around the downtown, free for anyone who wanted them—a vivid symbol of the troupe's uncompromising contemporary bent. And she used her eye for cutting-edge talent to bring in choreographers as they were just emerging as stars in Europe: Nederland Dans Theater's Medhi Walerski, say, or Italy's Walter Matteini.
In the summer of 2012, she was joined by a new executive director, Branislav Henselmann, a German-born dancer who has a masters of fine arts in dance and business, and who's worked extensively in London (especially with the Michael Clark Company) and New York. At the time, he told me: "I'm really fascinated about what [artistic director] Emily [Molnar] has been able to do. I believe it's one of the best rep companies that I have seen in a long time and definitely there's a place for it on the world stage. But also crucial to that is the regional and national level too. Now we have to build the infrastructure around it."
With him, she staged Ballet B.C.'s most ambitious season yet in 2012-13, with work by Jacopo Godani, who she became close with as a dancer at Frankfurt Ballet, and a full-length, boldly avant-garde multimedia Giselle with resident choreographer Jose Navas—someone she'd recruited from the contemporary world who had never worked with pointe, and ended up thriving with it.
"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," she told me, 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."
Getting it out there has meant the company's first tour since its financial disaster: this year, it's travelled to eastern Ontario, Oregon's White Bird, Jacob's Pillow, and more. Critical response was strong, and the hope is the presenters who saw Ballet B.C. at those shows will spur more touring in the coming seasons.
At the same time, dancers have more stability at the company, now working a relatively solid 41 weeks of the year.
When she arrived to try to save the company in 2009, it was all about survival. These days, though, Molnar wants to expand not just the touring, but the apprenticeship program, and even work toward having a junior company that could tour the province. In other words, she's come far enough that she's not afraid of talking about long-term plans—or her dreams for Ballet B.C.