On a dark, chilly fall Vancouver morning, Ballet BC executive director Jay Rankin spent two hours handing out tutus in the rain - a declaration that the company is not in the ballets-in-tutus business any more.
It was a publicity stunt, of course: Ballet BC didn't even have the tutus to begin with; about 26 volunteers spent weeks making them by hand before giving them away.
Ballet BC launches its first full season this week since returning from the brink of bankruptcy in 2008. Led by artistic director Emily Molnar, it has rebranded itself as a contemporary ballet company. Thus, the tutu giveaway.
"We wanted to be a bit provocative," Molnar said in a recent interview. "We wanted people to notice. And they did."
Whether that translates into ticket sales remains to be seen.
Asked if Vancouver audiences might want tutus with their ballet, might want the classical-ballet experience with all its frilly accoutrements, Molnar was emphatic. "Ballet's been evolving ... for many years and we have a lot of people that won't step in our doors if there is a tutu."
Still, when the company relaunched last spring with Re/Naissance, an exciting, contemporary program that included works by superstar choreographers Crystal Pite and William Forsythe, the box office wasn't exactly doing pirouettes. On opening night, in what should have been a big welcome-back-from-the-brink celebration, many seats sat empty. Sales picked up through the short run, but, in the end, only 57 per cent of the tickets sold.
"I think what happened at that Re/Naissance show is that we were coming out of the blocks after a very disadvantaged period," Rankin says. "People didn't know whether or not they would really want to invest in us. They didn't know if they wanted to take a chance on us yet."
This season is looking better, he reports. For one, there is a subscription series, which provides a big boost in sales. There is also a Nutcracker, a box-office sure thing, albeit only for a post-Christmas, four-day run. As in years past, a visiting company will provide the holiday magic; this year, it's Alberta Ballet's new production.
This sets the stage for a sugar plum fairy cage match, pitting Ballet BC against upstart Goh Ballet, whose Nutcracker premiered - and thrived - last year in the absence of a Ballet BC presentation. While the dates don't collide (Goh's Nutcracker runs before Christmas), the two companies are trying to avoid future conflict.
"It would make good business sense if we were able to consolidate the audience," Rankin says.
Rankin, who has been with the company a little more than a year, admits that he is tired as he pours everything into the Ballet BC relaunch. "We're under tremendous pressure," he says. "We have a lot of expectations on us to deliver, and a lot of expectations on us to remain fiscally secure."
The season launches on Nov. 18 with three short works: Molnar's Songs of a Wayfarer and the world premieres of Kevin O'Day's Face to Face and Jose Navas's the bliss that from their limbs all movement takes, set to parts of Passages by Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar.
Navas, the edgy founder and artistic director of Montreal contemporary dance company Compagnie Flak, recently signed on as Ballet BC's resident choreographer. He will create a full-length Giselle for 2012, marking the first time the company will produce a full-length work that is not narrative- or music-based.
"He's someone who's in his mid-career evolving into a master choreographer in our country," Molnar says. "And we have a company he feels he wants to be a part of."
Molnar, a former dancer with the Frankfurt Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada, says Ballet BC's contemporary direction is not unusual, pointing to a number of companies in Europe, including Stuttgart Ballet.
She says Vancouver is exactly the kind of forward-thinking city that should embrace a contemporary ballet company. "Look at the visual artists that come out of this city. Look at the music, the filming, look at the digital technology. We have progressive people come to this city to find more alternative ways of thinking. ... We should be the people that are the driving force. I would say being conservative is not necessarily what Vancouver is."
Songs of a Wayfarer + other works opens Ballet BC's 25th-anniversary season Nov. 18-20 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver ( balletbc.com).