After 10 years as the artistic director of Ballet BC, Emily Molnar isn’t singing the blues, but she definitely is choreographing them.
That’s Blues as in the posthumous album by Jimi Hendrix released in 1994. It forms the soundtrack of her latest choreography, To this day, which will part of a performance by Ballet BC at the NAC on March 23.
These days, Ballet BC is basking in the glow of an Olivier Award nomination for the mixed presentation of works 16 + A Room, Solo Echo, and Bill, which it danced at Sadler’s Wells in London last year. The company is on a solid footing financially and expanding its scope with an emerging junior company and projects galore. Much of the success is due to Molnar and her administrative team.
Molnar hails from Regina where her father Steve was a running back with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the ’70s.
“I started dancing when I was five. I was also doing a lot of track in school and diving. But I started to dance seriously at age 7 and I left home at 10 to go to the National Ballet School while my parents continued to live in Regina.
“I just wanted it so much. I went to a great youth dance school but it was really important, if I wanted to have a professional career in dance, I needed to look to one of the major schools in the country and the National Ballet School was at the top of my list. I was really lucky to get into it.
It wasn’t easy but, Molnar said, it isn’t supposed to be easy.
“As I get older I realize how rare that was and I appreciate that that came to me. I have been lucky to have found it and to be able to stay in the profession and feel like I have kept growing.”
Molnar has gone from student to professional dancer to choreography and now being an artistic director.
“Dance has this beautiful thing that we have to transition when most people are really getting started in their careers. As Martha Graham said dancers have a second death.”
Molnar saw her father retire from football as a young man and the same sort of thing happened to her. She had to leave professional dancing to assume her current position.
She still trains with her company “but I don’t perform.” That stopped when she took the Ballet BC job. “And performing for me was everything.”
As David Bowie might say she turned and faced the strange.
Along Molnar’s journey, there have been mentors and a key one is the American choreographer William Forsythe, who today leads the Frankfurt Ballet, and is one of the leading lights in contemporary dance.
“I met Bill when I was 16. I was an apprentice at National Ballet of Canada and he wanted to do a new work which would eventually become The Second Detail which I think have had at NAC. He wanted to use me in the creation and got me a job in the National Ballet company.”
Four years later he came back and did another work called Herman Schmerman. He offered Molnar a job at that point. She was 21 when she headed to Frankfurt.
“I left to work with him and what I can say is I am still digesting those years. When I arrived I didn’t know where the floor was. My whole world was totally thrown upside down.”
It was deep water but she did learn how to swim in it.
“What makes him unique is that he is able to tether the classical and contemporary dance world. He never negates one for the other. At end of the day he is a master theatre director and dance is one of the languages he composes with. … He’s very dedicated to creating the experience of high art.”
Molnar is one of many younger choreographers who have been influenced by Forsythe. Count Kidd Pivot’s Crystal Pite as another.
“I can’t say enough about what I learned about taking risk.”
Forsythe’s piece, Enemy in the Figure is on the bill for the Ottawa performance. She feels it exemplifies the kind of work Forsythe creates.
“He explores body’s potential for expression. He would say ‘I’m not interested in how a person walks I’m interested in how they trip.’
“This piece was actually made in 1989 but when you watch it, it still feels ahead of its time. I never hesitate when I say it’s a masterwork of 20th century dance.”
The trio of works also includes a dance by someone Molnar has mentored.
Cayetano Soto created the piece Beginning After and its back story is like a Hollywood movie.
“It was his second creation for us. He had just gone through some health issues and a had his stomach taken out and basically disinfected and put back in” shortly before working with Ballet BC.
While in Vancouver there were complications and Soto had to go through same surgery. In the spirit of the show must go on he kept working on the dance from his hospital bed.
“He wanted to continue making the piece,” Molnar said. So by day the dancers would work out his ideas. Their work would be videotaped and shown to Soto at night.
It’s not much doubt that the theme of the piece is one of struggle and anxiety about life.
As for her own work, To this day, Molnar said she wanted to work with and be inspired by the blues.
She was able to get permission to use the music from Blues from the estate.
“Recently the family has taken more interest in what happens with Jimi Hendrix’s music. He has connections to Vancouver so it made sense for us.
“The piece is not an homage to Jimi and that actually was a good thing. The estate wants his music to be used artistically and not connected to things that aren’t appropriate to Jimi’s legacy.”
Molnar said that her idea was to celebrate 10 years at Ballet BC and honour the artists in the company with the work. She was drawn to the idea of identity and the voice contained in Blues.
“I was incredibly taken by the album. It shows how much he was first and foremost a blues artist. It just hit me when I heard it. My thought was there was room to choreograph and say something.”
These days Ballet BC is in a good place. They have a place to work at the Dance Centre in downtown Vancouver and they perform in the 2,700 seat Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Molnar, who had always been a bit of a gypsy in the past, has now settled in and is looking ahead to the next decade for Ballet BC.
“Those 10 years will be crucial” for the 33 year old company, she said.
Where: Southam Hall
When: March 23 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca