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Emily Molnar is a local hero for having built Ballet BC up from near bankruptcy into an international success story.

Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak The Globe and Mail

Ballet BC, a stylish small-scale contemporary ballet company, has been filling theatres everywhere it goes in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. An ambitious run of six performances at a 1,500-seat theatre under the sails at Sydney Opera House in June is planned, which suggests the high expectations around the company.

Those expectations are the result of intense investment in dancer creativity and audience engagement by artistic director Emily Molnar – who departs in June, 2020, to lead Nederlands Dans Theater. Her successor will inherit a vastly different scenario from the one Molnar faced in 2009.

Molnar is a local hero for having built Ballet BC up from near bankruptcy into an international success story. She is also popular as a former dancer (with Ballet BC and Ballett Frankfurt) who has never overplayed the glamour sometimes attached to ballerinas, delivering curtain speeches and hosting behind-the-scenes events with the expected grace and charm, but also brevity and good sense.

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Ballet BC’s next artistic director – the seventh since the company’s founding in 1986 – will be announced next month.

To maintain the current European-style branding, a European successor is widely expected, according to Jim Smith, who runs the international DanceHouse series and an arts management agency in Vancouver. If that successor is also a choreographer, Smith says, “I hope their ambitions as a choreographer are matched by their ambitions as an artistic director.”

Possible contenders could come from among the European men who have contributed to Ballet BC’s repertoire. Cayetano Soto, for instance, was resident choreographer from 2015 to 2018. And Medhi Walerski was given the opportunity to create his first full-length narrative work, Romeo + Juliet, which premiered in 2018 and will be remounted at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in March in preparation for the Australian tour.

Following on the #MeToo movement, there is a push in the ballet world for gender equity by increasing the number of female choreographers. Research by the U.S. Dance Data Project highlights the need for equity in artistic directors, too. Another Canadian woman (Molnar is Regina-born) helming Ballet BC would strike two positive notes, although there are no obvious perfect fits. Canadian ballet is set to lose another female artistic director when the National Ballet of Canada’s Karen Kain retires in January, 2021.

Ballet BC's executive director John Clark says there has been interest in the Vancouver position “from all over the world.” It's no surprise: Both Ballet BC and star choreographer Crystal Pite and her company Kidd Pivot have created a high profile for Canada's West Coast as a dance destination.

While Canadians mourn losing Molnar to Europe, her ambitions as a leader (until last summer she was also artistic director of dance at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity) explain the attraction of Nederlands Dans Theater: The much larger Dutch company has a highly regarded main group (NDT 1), and a second troupe of young dancers (NDT 2). And Molnar has an affinity for NDT’s aesthetic: Under her watch, several Ballet BC commissions have gone to choreographers connected to that company, including Walerski.

Under Molnar’s watch, Ballet BC has focused on creating a repertory of new works, with commissions to international and also Canadian choreographers its lifeblood. Molnar’s own choreographic works seemed designed to round out mixed bills. This is very different from the era of her predecessor, John Alleyne, when Ballet BC was seen as a vehicle for his choreography, including story ballets that struggled to find an audience. If the incoming director is a choreographer, that balance could change once again.

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