Dressed all in black and dark grey, her auburn hair folded up hastily in a big clip, Emily Molnar is guiding Ballet BC through its next steps. At 5-foot-11, the company's artistic director is the tallest person in the studio, where she is overseeing a rehearsal of Crystal Pite's Short works: 24. The edgy piece by the local superstar choreographer is one of the highlights of Re/Naissance, which will officially relaunch Ballet BC this week after a tumultuous period. Its rebirth, if you will.
The program, which also includes William Forsythe's Herman Schmerman and Itzik Galili's Things I Told Nobody, signals not simply the company's return from its recent rocky past, but its future direction, which will be rooted firmly in contemporary ballet.
What we're doing is not inaccessible. It's not purely experimental where we're going to lose our audience. We're still doing ballet. Emily Molnar
That will be confirmed later this week when the company announces its 2010-11 season, which will include seven world premieres, a work choreographed by Molnar and performances by a big-name New York contemporary dance company. There will be no full-length classical works, other than a presentation of The Nutcracker. Beyond the Christmas box-office sure thing, audiences looking for classical or even neoclassical ballet might be disappointed. Ballet BC's future isn't about Swan Lake.
"We are doing this because it's right for the company," says Molnar, 36, a former principal dancer at Ballet BC who was recently named artistic director after nine months as interim leader. She envisions a European rather than a North American model, where she will bring in a variety of contemporary choreographers, as opposed to focusing on creating her own pieces (a departure from former artistic director John Alleyne's Ballet BC).
She is promising contemporary ballet that is rooted in classicism, but pushed to its boundaries. Herman Schmerman, she points out, is a virtuosic piece that requires classical training.
"Contemporary work is actually for the audience a bit more challenging," she says. "But when it's done well, it's incredibly stimulating."
Molnar admits that even if Ballet BC wanted to stage a full-length classical ballet, it couldn't afford to right now. The company laid off Alleyne, its dancers and staff en masse in late 2008 as it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy; cancelled most of its 2009-2010 season; and restructured (Alleyne was rehired but they later parted ways).
It's now operating with a skeleton staff of six, including Molnar (who is doing double duty as a rehearsal director), and with a scaled-down company of 13 dancers plus two interns. To make matters worse, the organization lost more than $100,000 in provincial funding last summer because of cuts to gaming grants and to the B.C. Arts Council. The company, whose annual budget once stood at about $3-million, is now operating at roughly half that.
It has made Jay Rankin's new role as executive director challenging, to say the least. "Anybody who comes into a job like this will say, 'Oh I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn't know it was going to be as hard as this.' And it's hackneyed to say this, but it's true."
Rankin, 54, the former managing director of Toronto Dance Theatre, has been working long days to tackle the giant repair job. "This company has to win back the confidence of the public, regardless, given the gap in the programming and the loss of confidence there was in the company."
He has to fix damaged relationships with subscribers, ticket buyers, donors, funding bodies, suppliers, venue managers, dancers and the arts community in general, he says. "I think that we have been able to really address the most acute bad stuff, if you will, that happened at a time when we were on the brink of collapse. We are addressing the broken bridges. We're facing each and every one of those that we encounter." He figures it will take at least two or three years to turn things around.
As part of this week's announcement, Ballet BC will confirm that it will be back at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre for the next three seasons. The plan is to take advantage of the large stage, but to close off the balcony and turn it into a more intimate, 1,500-seat venue. Unless, of course, they're able to sell out the place.
Ticket sales for Re/Naissance have been slow to start, but Rankin says they are picking up. He hopes that discounts in ticket and subscription pricing next season will have an impact on sales.
He believes that the contemporary focus gives the company an opportunity to attract new audiences, and insists he doesn't think it will alienate the company's traditional market. If he's wrong, he says, the company can easily shift direction. "One of the advantages of being so skinny is that we feel things really quickly. We're small enough and self-aware enough to change."
Molnar doesn't think that will be necessary. She is convinced that Vancouver audiences will embrace her vision. "What we're doing is not inaccessible. It's not purely experimental where we're going to lose our audience. We're still doing ballet.
"And I feel very confident because I know that the city likes new work. That's a given. So I don't feel in any way that I'm taking a risk; I think it's a very exciting change."
Re/Naissance is at Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth Theatre Thursday through Saturday ( balletbc.com ).