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British Columbia City of Vancouver selects Ballet BC executive director as its new head of culture

Branislav Henselmann, executive director of Ballet BC, will be the City of Vancouver’s new managing director of cultural services.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Branislav Henselmann, executive director of Ballet BC, will be the City of Vancouver's new managing director of cultural services.

"I think culture generally can truly be a platform for profound societal change," says Mr. Henselmann, whose career has been focused mostly on performing arts and who has no previous experience in arts administration at the government level.

"There was always the idea that there's much more to do than to put a dance work onstage. Because, if that's a reflection of society, then our job is a much bigger one. So when this opportunity came up, it allows me to look at a much larger platform to work, maybe inducing that society change, maybe leaving a mark in a way that will be both meaningful and useful."

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The appointment was announced Thursday.

Vancouver's previous cultural services head, Richard Newirth, parted ways suddenly with the city in the summer, "due to organizational changes," according to the city.

Mr. Henselmann, 41, was born in Belgrade and began folk dancing there in primary school. His family later moved to Munich, where he began ballet. He later studied in London, at the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance.

He then spent two years studying in New York with the Merce Cunningham Foundation and dancing with "postmodern dance companies." He did his master of fine arts at New York University on a fellowship, studying dance, choreography and business administration. While at school, he began an internship at New York City Ballet, which led to a position with the affiliated New York Choreographic Institute.

He later returned to England, working for DanceEast, a national organization out of Ipswich and then for the Michael Clark Company in London, where he produced and toured theatrical works and museum commissions – his professional introduction to visual art.

In 2012, he ran into Ballet BC artistic director Emily Molnar in London – they had met previously – and she told him Ballet BC was looking for an executive director. Mr. Henselmann said he would look around for appropriate candidates. But when he started reading about the company online, he decided he wanted the job.

"There's this unknown company in Vancouver that was doing this work that was just mind-blowing; my head exploded. It was a no-brainer for me; I just packed my bags and said I wanted to come work with you guys."

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Mr. Henselmann will remain at Ballet BC until April, when he will move to the city. He is also chair of Canadian Ballet Companies for the National Dance Council and a board director for the Canadian Dance Assembly.

At Ballet BC, a search has begun to fill his shoes. "Branislav has been an extraordinary executive director … during an important period in which Ballet BC has emerged as a company of increasing international importance," the company's board chair and president, Kevin Leslie, said in a statement. "His unique vision and energy will be missed and will not go unremembered."

Asked about his priorities in his new position at the city, Mr. Henselmann said he is keen to be an ambassador for arts and artists in Vancouver; to get the word out throughout the city, at city hall, nationally and internationally.

"I do really think that Vancouver has been producing some of the most incredible art that is seen around the world and people don't even realize that it's from here," he said. "One of the jobs we have to do is toot our own horn."

He's also interested in the capacity for the arts to effect change beyond the cultural sector.

When asked for his views on the campaign by the Vancouver Art Gallery to build a new facility, Mr. Henselmann wouldn't answer specifically, but said he strongly believes in the power of cultural regeneration that is induced through major capital investments in arts infrastructure. "I've seen it happen over and over again."

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This week, city council voted unanimously to extend the deadlines it imposed on the VAG for giving the gallery a long-term lease on the city-owned land known as Larwill Park. The conditions, which were not met by the original deadline of April, 2015, were extended until the end of 2018.

"With renewed federal support for arts and culture, [the VAG] is in the process of requesting funding from senior government and the private sector," the report read.

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