When Emily Molnar stepped in as artistic director in 2009, Ballet BC was recovering from a dance with bankruptcy and going through an enormous transition. Under Ms. Molnar’s leadership, Ballet BC has taken leaps. With a focus on contemporary ballet, the company has become a critical darling, attracting international attention; in 2013, it was named a company to watch by prestigious Dance Magazine (and Ms. Molnar was named a Globe and Mail Artist of the Year). Subscriptions and single ticket sales are up, and younger people are attending. An audience survey conducted during the 2012-13 season found the most common age for single ticket holders who had never purchased season tickets was between 25 and 34.
Ballet BC closes its season next week with UN/A, a program of three world premieres by choreographers Gioconda Barbuto, Gustavo Ramirez Sansano and Cayetano Soto.
The Globe spoke with Ms. Molnar – a former dancer with Ballet BC, the National Ballet of Canada and with William Forsythe’s Frankfurt Ballet – during a break from rehearsals.
The task at hand was fairly daunting when you took over at Ballet BC. What was that like?
I found it a wonderful opportunity for the company to learn from its past and develop into a new era. Yes, it was challenging – it is challenging – but anything great and worth working for is worth a challenge, so I saw the opportunity in the situation. I think that’s the reason I was able to take the job. If I had a different mindset I wouldn’t have been the right person.
You’ve had several successful seasons under your belt, and a real turnaround. How does that feel?
It feels fantastic. It’s been incredible to see a small group of people come together for a cause. I think we really went back to the art and to the purpose art can serve in our community, and by doing that, we have created a new conversation. And that has given me a lot of hope. It’s something that I believed was possible from my years as a dancer and a choreographer – what dance can do, or any art form for that matter. And I feel that in my position right now, watching the company develop and turn around in the way that it has, it has proven to me the potential of what art can be, and if you stay true to the art form, how it can resonate.
Let’s talk about UN/A. Does having a full program of world premieres add to the pressure?
If we are going to create art and take the risk of creating great art, we have to be able to fail. And I say that in the most positive way, because failure in our society has a very negative connotation. Any entrepreneur knows if you’re not able to create risk within your organization, you’re not going to be able to innovate. Without taking the wonderful risk of creating new work and letting it breathe, we won’t be able to fulfill our mission. And what I am finding very inspiring is that our audiences are coming to our performances to experience the conversation and it’s not about every piece having to be a masterwork. We’re very lucky that we have an audience in Vancouver that has that desire and commitment to have that conversation with us. I think we should be very proud in this city to be able to have that, because I think it’s quite unique in the country. And we have become an ambassador for new work globally. We haven’t stepped yet on European soil as far as touring, but people in Europe know what we’re doing and that’s because we’re bringing creators from around the world to Vancouver. So they’re experiencing the Canadian dance scene and going back and talking about it. And this is not just in Europe but in other places as well.
UN/A has two European choreographers.
Two Spanish, yes. It’s the first time that Gustavo has ever had his work shown in Canada. And Cayetano has worked with Les Ballets Jazz [de Montreal], but aside from that he’s not really been seen here. These are both established choreographers whose work has been seen in many other countries around the world, and Canada has not had the luxury of being able to see their work. And what’s fantastic about Gioconda is she’s from Montreal, she’s Canadian, and she’s a female choreographer and we don’t have enough of them in this world. It’s very much part of my vision to support not only Canadian choreographers, but female choreographers.
All of them are dealing in some way with transition. It was not a theme I asked them to deal with. It was a theme that they all, by circumstance, have come up with. And I think it says something about our time, if this is something that everyone wants to discuss.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
UN/A is at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre April 24-26.