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To near-bankruptcy and back: How Ballet BC got its groove back

These are precarious cultural times in Vancouver. As The Globe and Mail first reported this week, MusicFest Vancouver has suspended its operations and pulled the plug on its 2013 festival. Earlier this year, the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company shut down after 49 years as a regional theatre company. Other organizations are fighting to keep their artistic heads above water.

Four years ago, Ballet BC too was facing bankruptcy. It laid off its staff, including dancers and then-artistic director John Alleyne. It was a disaster. But the company returned from the brink with a new artistic director, Emily Molnar, and a new vision. Molnar is a former Ballet BC principal dancer and soloist with the Frankfurt Ballet under director William Forsythe. Back at Ballet BC, she promised contemporary ballet rooted in classicism, and pushed to the boundaries.

She has delivered. And this week, to open its most ambitious season since its dance with collapse, Ballet BC presents In/verse, a program of three works – the world premiere of Molnar's Aniel, and premieres from two all-the-rage international choreographers: American Nicolo Fonte and Italian-born Jacopo Godani, who makes his Canadian debut with A.U.R.A. (Anarchist Unit Related to Art).

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Swan Lake, this isn't. Really, when is the last time you read the word "klezmer" in a story about ballet?

Godani, who has been described by Vogue Italia as "one of the most in-demand choreographers in the world," is on the cutting edge of the art form, and exactly the kind of artist Molnar is interested in presenting as she rebuilds her company.

"His work has never been seen in Canada and I have been waiting a long time – ever since I got this job, I knew I wanted to bring something of Jacopo's here," says Molnar, who has collaborated with Godani in the past.

A.U.R.A., set to a score composed and performed by the popular German electro-acoustic duo 48nord, was originally commissioned by Ballet Mainz in Germany. For Ballet BC, Godani has re-choreographed many sections. "It's a world premiere in a sense because he's changed so much. He made it specific to our company," said Molnar during a break from lighting rehearsals this week. "I love that he was inspired to do that."

The program also features a world premiere by New York-born choreographer Nicolo Fonte. Muse, a triptych described as "energetic" and "hopeful," marks the first time Fonte's work has been seen in Canada since Ballet BC presented his Like You in 2005. Set to a recording by the superstar New York-based ETHEL string quartet, Muse was created over three weeks in Vancouver this fall.

"Nicolo paid me personally and the company one of the greatest compliments I could get," says Molnar. "He said, 'I feel like I'm at home. I feel like I can just focus on making the piece I want to make.'"

Molnar's own Aniel was inspired by U.S. avant-garde composer/saxophonist John Zorn's Book of Angels – a collection of short compositions, many of which are named for angels in the Judeo-Christian tradition, including Aniel or Haniel – sometimes referred to as the joy of God or the grace of God.

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"I was instantly inspired when I heard the music," says Molnar. "And I felt this would very much resonate with my idea of wanting to create a world that was about joy, about whimsy, about more of the absurd in a playful way."

The Crakow Klezmer Band and the Masada String Trio play the percussive, vibrant music; the work is meant to be lighthearted and playful – more contemporary dance than contemporary ballet. Danced (not en pointe) to music inspired by angels, one can anticipate an air of celebration.

And why not? Even if the three-show run does not sell out (and it likely won't), there is much to celebrate here: the resurrection of a company that did it not by pandering but by pushing the envelope. That is able to tour again – for the first time since its near bankruptcy – outside the Lower Mainland, including performances scheduled for next year at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and the prestigious White Bird Festival in Portland, Ore. Ballet BC – Molnar, in particular – is working not just to keep the company afloat, but to do it with integrity and innovation. It's one thing to get bums in seats. It's another to get jaws to drop. She's trying to do both.

"I think the idea is that we're always working with an artist that has a classical and contemporary understanding of dance, so when you have that as a base, then you're able to go in so many directions," she says. "It's our job right now as people in the art form to keep pushing it forward."

Molnar is doing her job – and then some. If you're in Vancouver this week, consider buying a ticket. Not to help save this ballet company – it's saving itself – but to witness where ballet is taking its next great leap.

In/verse is at Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth Theatre Nov. 22-24, with performances at 8 p.m.

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