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For more than a decade, award-winning choreographer Emily Molnar has served as Artistic Director of the innovative, collaborative and creation-based company Ballet BC in Canada. Under her leadership, the company has developed a bold and diverse repertory that has made a unique and valuable contribution to the development of dance in Canada. She speaks with ICONS and shares her artistic vision, creative process and advice to emerging choreographers.
ICONS: Please tell us about your earliest encounters with dance.
Emily Molnar: Dancing hit me quite early. I was a child with a lot of energy. I took creative movement classes when I was five, found ballet at six, and by seven had bought a pair of pointe shoes. Once I was ten years old, my commitment to dancing was serious enough to leave home to attend the National Ballet School of Canada.
At ballet school, a light kind of turned on for me because I had the opportunity to be exposed to a number of different choreographers. I became very interested in contemporary work and what it meant to create movement and collaborate. From there I spent most of my professional career dedicating myself to that idea of building new work within a contemporary ballet trajectory.
ICONS: Can you speak about your transition from dancer to choreographer?
EM: In my first month as an apprentice with The National Ballet of Canada, William Forsythe came to Toronto to cast and create a new piece for the company. He wanted to use me, so I ended up getting a full company contract on the spot to work with him on what became The Second Detail.
As a dancer, I was very hungry to work with choreographers and examine different styles and approaches to making work. So working with William Forsythe as one of my first professional experiences just enhanced the questions and curiosities that I had then and continued to have throughout most of my professional life.
I think choreographically the interest came into my life when Bill (William Forsythe) came back to Toronto a second time to set a different work and offered me a job to dance with the Frankfurt Ballet.
Spending five years with Bill in Frankfurt Ballet really cemented it for me. The first piece I worked on there was Eidose:Telos, which was eight weeks of working solely on improvisation. It was a privilege going through all of that documentation of the improvisational modalities. All of these tools were helping me ask questions about what it means to create, build vocabulary and to invent movement. It opened my eyes to a range of creative abilities, to pushing the boundaries and taking risks.
ICONS: How would you describe your style of choreography?
EM: I would say my style very much belongs to the expression, the dynamics and the range of the body. There is a certain largeness and expansiveness in the way that I create movement. I like to use large strokes and tend to create environments with strong attention to the dynamics of musicality.
I'm always looking at the relationship between the collective and the individual, which is not uncommon for choreographers. But I do think I am constantly searching in both the movement invention and also compositionally to create environments that allow for individuality.
ICONS: What role do the dancers play in your creative process?
EM: I'm always first and foremost fascinated by the person who is in the room with me. Even though I may have ideas or questions that I'm contemplating, I’ll often start a process with a proposition and ask the dancer to solve it. Creating a certain kind of environment and allowing things to interact really excites me. That's why I often refer to works as ‘in collaboration with the dancers’ because I do depend on a lot of agency from the dancers.
I made my first choreographies on my own body and I was showing each movement, but I’ve found with time that I am much more fascinated with asking questions and seeing how people try to solve them. Then it becomes more about how I understood what that person is saying and how I actually try to guide or tune it in different ways that would be resonant with what I am trying to work on.
ICONS: What influences have been key to your artistic development?
EM: I think the breadth between that which I've experienced in a very contemporary environment and coming from a classical environment and classical training has been a big factor. How those two points meet and the ability to look on either side to investigate and enjoy how they are similar and how they are different has probably influenced me the most.
Also, other artists and artistic fields are always influential. I often will relate more so to artists outside of dance when I’m studying and looking into ideas. But I do think one of the greatest influences is definitely Bill (William Forsythe), even though I’ve seen and experienced many other artists’ works, because I was just exposed to so much during the time I worked with him. Having access to a toolbox that was not necessarily connected to an aesthetic, but to a way of thinking about physical space was very helpful. Even though I don’t necessarily use those modalities to make my work, it did help me start to ask the questions that lead me to develop my own choreographic voice.
ICONS: Do you have a specific formula for your creative process?
EM: I’ll often start with an idea or concept. That concept will then compound on itself through cycles of regenerating and reformatting movement. I’ll ask questions and explore how to build on the idea. Then I’ll look at how far I can stretch that idea and what it does to the body in space, the composition of the work and its relationship to an audience. I tend to build a lot of layers and structure and then keep re-orienting what I’ve made. I’ll do this so often that people inside the process can at some point get completely fed up (laughing)! But then they get excited.
ICONS: What remains constant in every new work you make?
EM: Every work I’ve created is in some way an investigation into the expression and potential of the body and what we can say. Although I will often let myself be aesthetically guided in different directions, a certain boldness or daring in the use of the body remains, and within that, there is a very strong nerve of keeping that expression deliberately inside of the body.
ICONS: Could you share a little about the ideas behind some of your most recent works?
EM: I've moved through different starting points of what drew me to things. For example, the last piece I created, To This Day, was to the music of Jimi Hendrix. The piece marked my 10-year anniversary as Artistic Director of Ballet BC. For that work, I really wanted to give a moment to each of the artists in the company. It was about celebration and liberation and the dancers themselves giving over to a sense of euphoria – it was kind of the opposite of what we often allow ourselves to investigate on stage. It was a full company piece with a lot of joy. The piece I created before that was about memory because at the time my father was suffering a great deal from Alzheimer's at a relatively young age. So it was a very different tone and it moved in very different directions.
ICONS: How has your own choreography changed or developed in the 10 years that you have been Artistic Director of Ballet BC?
EM: I’d say I’ve been able to take more risks because of the group of dancers whom I’ve worked with here and really gotten to know. To have this trust from a group that has so much to offer and is so willing and able to jump in with curiosity and commitment has really helped me grow as a choreographer. With each process the dancers have become more sophisticated, so they have also challenged me in good ways. Without a doubt, my work and choreographic voice have been shaped a great deal because of this consistency.
I have been able to take risks that I may not have been able to take in a different environment. If I were moving around or just making work for myself as a performer, I believe I would have made much different work over the past decade. That certainly doesn't mean that I haven’t enjoyed the work I've done for other companies. They've all been huge learning experiences and beautiful opportunities that I’m very grateful for. But I think my time with Ballet BC has absolutely helped me shape a new sense of understanding of my voice, and to have the confidence to really go to the edge of what I felt comfortable trying to do.
ICONS: What has been one of your most satisfying experiences as an Artistic Director?
EM: Dance asks everything from us, and for that reason, it is one of the most compelling art forms or careers one can choose. It's a real journey of the self. If you let it be. Surrendering to what it means to fully dance without any blockage, and to give yourself over to that in a very confident and positive way - I think is one of the most exhilarating things to witness. That's why I love directing. Watching people rise to that occasion for themselves - it's such a beautiful thing.
ICONS: What do you want young choreographers to know?
EM: With choreographers, I believe communication is important on many levels. I wonder why, as choreographers, we don't write more about each other's work. I feel like maybe that's one of the missing links. Not because it's intentional necessarily, but I think perhaps just realizing we can open up and that we're working together to move ideas forward is important. We don't all have to be doing it the same way. There will be people who are more established and those who are at the beginning. Both are valid places to be. But I believe we can promote being able to go deeper into our ideas while understanding that people will be at different stages of their careers.
ICONS: What advice would the Emily of today give the younger Emily?
EM: I think in my past I've had so many opportunities, but I also placed a certain amount of pressure on myself, which might have taken away perhaps from my fully experiencing some things. So my advice would be to enjoy every step, and really trust that every moment I was in, was the best one at that moment.
I’m happy I can say; it hasn't been always an easy road, but I don't regret. I've made decisions that have been true to my heart, not necessarily to what the outside world may have agreed would be the best thing. I feel very lucky that I've been able to live a life through artistic expression.
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More About Emily Molnar:
As Artistic Director of Ballet BC, Molnar’s vision has steered the company into an era of innovation and collaboration. Since the start of her tenure in 2009, the Company has developed a diverse repertoire that includes more than 45 new works by Canadian and international choreographers. A graduate of the National Ballet School, Molnar is a former member of the National Ballet of Canada, a soloist with the Frankfurt Ballet under director William Forsythe, and a principal dancer with Ballet BC. As an internationally respected dance artist and choreographer, Molnar has worked and toured extensively throughout the world. Named The Globe and Mail’s 2013 Dance Artist of the Year, Molnar is the 2016 recipient of the Vancouver Mayor’s Arts Award, BC Community Achievement Award and the YWCA Women of Distinction Award in Art, Culture & Design. She was recently appointed to the Order of Canada for her contribution to advancing dance in Canada. For six years Molnar served as a Director on the BC Arts Council Board and she was the Artistic Director of Dance at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity from 2014-2019. In 2019, Molnar was inducted into the BC Hall of Fame for contributions to the province’s entertainment industry and cultural landscape.
Emily Molnar, photo by Michael Slobodian
Artists of Ballet BC in Bedroom Folk, photo by Michael Slobodian
Artists of Ballet BC in Bedroom Folk, photo by Michael Slobodian
Artists of Ballet BC in Minus 16, photo by Michael Slobodian
Artists of Ballet BC in To This Day, photo by Michael Slobodian
Artists of Ballet BC in Romeo + Juliet, photo by Michael Slobodian
Artists of Ballet BC in Enemy in the Figure, photo by Michael Slobidian
Video banner image artists of Ballet BC in Minus 16, photo by Michael Slobodian
Newsletter images Keep Driving, I’m Dreaming, photo by Michael Slobodian
Interviewer: Jessica Teague
Content Editor-in-Chief: Camilla Acquista
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