Design & Living / Culture Talks

The Contemporary Ballet Company Celebrating Dance’s Female Voice

On the eve of International Women’s Day, the celebrated Canadian company, Ballet BC, is bringing an electric trio of female-directed performances to Sadler’s Wells

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18-Ballet BC dancers Alexis Fletcher and Christoph
Ballet BC dancers Alexis Fletcher and Christoph von Riedemann in Solo EchoPhotography by Michael Slobodian

On the eve of International Women’s Day, Sadler’s Wells have invited Ballet BC, Canada’s foremost contemporary ballet company, to present a riveting triple bill – one apiece by Emily Molnar (the company’s artistic director), Crystal Pite and Sharon Eyal. Contemplative and impactful, poignant then electric – the dynamic, female-led programme conveys Molnar’s commitment to showcasing work that demonstrates the classical form’s role at the roots of present day artistry. The celebrated director, choreographer and former performer for the National Ballet of Canada and Ballet Frankfurt – under contemporary master William Forsythe – took charge of Ballet BC in 2009, and transformed a lacklustre outfit into a vital, creation-led institution. “When I got the role, I was told: ‘Emily, it’s all about putting bums in seats,’ and I said, ‘Well, if that’s the case, I’m not going to be very good, because I see our audience as thoughtful individuals – whether they have experience of dance or not,’” she says. “So, the desire is to be creative and have a conversation around: Why and how are we dancing? And what does it mean for audiences today? It’s also about adapting to what arises. I refuse to dumb either the art form I care so deeply about, or the audience, down.”

Opening the triple bill is Molnar’s 16+ a room, a beguiling abstract poem on the nature of time, chaos and the unknown which is subtly informed by the writings of Jeanette Winterson, Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf. The soulful, transportive Solo, Echo, set to Brahms and Yo-Yo Ma – written by vaunted Canadian artist Pite (previously of Ballet BC and Ballet Frankfurt) whose earlier creation, Flight Pattern, recently premiered at the Royal Ballet – forms the evening’s centrepiece. The entrancing work, inspired by Mark Strand’s poem Lines for Winter, elicits wonder, before the pace ratchets up again with Bill by Israeli choreographer Sharon Eyal, Sadler’s Wells’ latest associate artist. A finale that, in Molnar’s words, “is like you’re looking at the past and the future at the same time”.

On touring a trio of works by women…
“I didn’t originally compose it with a view to presenting an evening of female choreography, but my vision has an overarching focus, which is supporting women – supporting the female voice, whether emerging or established, in everything I do – so when these three pieces came to life in the repertoire, it was an opportunity to say, ‘Oh, this would make quite a wonderful programme,’ prior to saying: ‘Oh wow, it’s all women. Isn’t that lovely.’”

On Ballet BC’s place in the international dance community…  
“The company is driven by the art making. It’s not about making work for us, but bringing an idea to our dancers who can go deeply and quickly into the making process, and are really versatile. As you see there’s work that’s en pointe, and then there’s something like Bill, which is on foot and incredibly articulate in the sensory body.”

On connecting with humanity through dance…
“I approach the dancers primarily as human beings, it’s about who they are on the street as well as on stage. As we often discuss, when you perform, and get past it being a vanity- or identity-building exercise, you’re there to share something, and then it becomes about the potential of the people underneath. As a young performer, I remember thinking if I was going to stand in front of thousands of people and ask them to listen, I’d better have something to say. And that’s the incredible gift and responsibility of the artist. It’s up to us to take in as much as we can and then bring it back into the act of creativity, the act of making, so that our art is relevant and connected to humanity and hopefully has a facet to it that is able to reach people on a different level than other means. So, yes it is dance, but it’s also the world and life, and how dance relates to it.”

On revisiting past works… 
“I originally made 16+ a room in 2013, and then completely reworked it in 2016. My point of view as a choreographer, and the ethos of the company, is that creation is always in progress. You want work to live and breathe. My wonderful mentor, William Forsythe, taught me that things are constantly changing – that they can, and should. So, if you’ve changed and you see [the piece] differently then change it: let it keep being what it needs to be.”

On gender inequality in dance…
“In the ballet world, you see more of a discrepancy in leadership roles. In contemporary dance, we have an enormous number of companies founded by and run by women, as well as many female choreographers. Ballet, by its very nature, is a female-driven art form – most of the ballet companies in Canada were founded by women – so I think there’s much room to recognise our talent, for while there are plentiful female dancers, how we treat them and how we pay them might be more of a question.”

Dance Consortium Presents Ballet British Columbia is on tour in the UK throughout March.

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