Dance is a democratic act

Dance is a democratic act

Interview with artistic director Emily Molnar

An interview with Emily Molnar, Artistic Director of Nederlands Dans Theater
“The why and the how are just as important as the what”

In August of this year, Emily Molnar (1973, Canada) started as the new Artistic Director of Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT). Her commencement of the position kicked off during one of the most challenging periods for the company and the dance world to date, with an invisible virus having far-reaching consequences. Who is the woman who crossed the Atlantic after 11 years of successful leadership in Canada and who arrived in Europe, the continent where she was a dancer at Ballett Frankfurt, under the directorship of choreographer William Forsythe? A conversation about collaboration, dealing with expectations and looking at what it means to dance today: “In the end, everything is a work in progress.”

Text: Annette Embrechts

Creative Space
During our conversation, she emphasizes it several times, as she did in her previous position as Artistic Director of Ballet BC (British Columbia) in Canada: “If I do my job well, I am invisible. I view it as my role to create a collaborative environment behind the scenes, so artists and the entire company can investigate and engage in their creative potential. As the new Artistic Director of Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT), Emily Molnar sees her position clearly: “My voice is to support and uplift other people’s voices.”

In Canada, Molnar displayed her exceptional talent in directing and organizing a company. Whether this was finding Ballet BC in near bankruptcy in 2009 and leaving it flourishing eleven years later, or creating a safe and creative space that stimulated a global conversation with internationally orientated dancers, choreographers and other artists. She built a completely new repertoire whilst reviving the artistic practice and approach, attracted exciting names and offered opportunities to new creative minds. “When I was appointed as Artistic Director, Ballet BC was in a dire financial situation. I said from the start that money does not equal standard. My focus was to propose a new creation based platform that would deepen our understanding of who we were and where we wanted to go.”

Molnar invited the dancers to be actively included in the conversation to reignite the company with a contemporary focus and to build a new and broader range of work. “A contemporary dance company is a democratic platform where one can share knowledge, ideas, responsibilities and risks. I see dancers as co-collaborators in the visioning of any company, also as I step into my position as Artistic Director at NDT. In this way, they have creative agency and a greater sense of belonging.”

Photo: Rahi Rezvani

A contemporary dance company is a democratic platform where one can share knowledge, ideas, responsibilities and risks. I see dancers as co-collaborators in the visioning of any company, also as I step into my position as Artistic Director at NDT.

A focus on female voices
Long before Molnar took the reins in Vancouver, she was aware of Ballet BC’s existence, which had been established in 1986. She had danced there as a soloist for four years after she returned from Ballett Frankfurt, under the guidance of William Forsythe.

'Solo Echo' by Crystal Pite. Photo: Rahi Rezvani.

With Ballet BC, Molnar produced forty-five new works in a time span of nine years, at which time the company became much more internationally known, leading to Ballet BC being nominated in Britain in 2019 for a prestigious Olivier Award for ‘Best New Dance Production’ with the triple bill of 16 + a Room (a choreography by Molnar herself), Solo Echo by her fellow Canadian Crystal Pite (associate choreographer of NDT since 2008) and Bill by the innovative duo Sharon Eyal & Gai Behar from Israel (also starring at NDT regularly). In this triptych, Molnar showed a strong attention and focus on female choreographers, ideas and voices.

Connections with NDT are already noticeable as well: Pite choreographed the much-praised Solo Echo for NDT 1 in 2012 – her fifth creation in The Hague; Molnar saw it and added the work to Ballet BC’s repertoire immediately. Her own contribution to this nominated triple bill of female choreographers, 16 + a Room, was inspired by texts of female writers (Virginia Woolf, Jeanette Winterson and Emily Dickinson). “As part of my research, I had the dancers work with excerpts of Woolf’s The Patterns of Ordinary Experience to generate material.” In the end, the victory for best new dance production went to a hip-hop performance – and funnily enough, her mentor Forsythe competed in the same category with Playlist (Track 1,2) made for the English National Ballet.

Moving across the country
At four years old, Molnar was running and jumping through the house so energetically that her grandmother advised her parents to sign their daughter up for dance lessons. Molnar comes from an athletic family with one older sister and two younger brothers. Her father was a professional football player in Canada while also working off season as a civil engineer. Her mother had studied medicine at the University of Utah, where she took dance classes as an elective. “She was exposed to teachings from Merce Cunningham and John Cage! So enviable!”

From the age of five, Molnar spent her time in a dance studio every day. By the time she was seven, she bought a pair of pointe shoes, without permission from her Russian dance teacher. “When she saw me messing about with them, she said, oh well, come here, I better teach you how to dance on pointe.” By the time Molnar was ten, she left home to move across the country to join the National Ballet School of Canada in Toronto and graduated at 16 years old with an apprenticeship agreement at The National Ballet of Canada under the artistic direction of Reid Anderson.

It was a phenomenal opportunity to work with the leading minds in dance.

In the summer of 1990, one month into her apprenticeship, Forsythe came to create a world premiere, The Second Detail. Due to Forysthe’s interest in working with Molnar, she was immediately offered a contract to join the National Ballet of Canada. Four years later, when Forsythe came back to Toronto to stage Herman Schmerman, he invited Molnar to join Ballett Frankfurt where she stayed for five years. “It was a phenomenal opportunity to work with the leading minds in dance.”

Work in progress
“When I started in Frankfurt, I was asked to reconsider everything I understood about dance. It was an exhilarating challenge. William offered enormous freedom to his dancers by engaging their individual responsibility. He taught me a lot about taking risks, curiosity and experimentation.” That is why many of his dancers are successfully choreographing or leading companies elsewhere such as Crystal Pite and her company Kidd Pivot. When Molnar got access to Forsythe’s improvisational technologies at twenty-one years old, she submerged herself completely. “Sometimes, it felt like my head was about to explode, there were endless possibilities. My world was being turned inside out, upside down, and I was hungry to absorb all of it. It made me wonder how we create space for the unexpected? How do we invite risk? How can a work continue to develop far beyond its premiere?” Forsythe’s forward thinking approach continues to resonate with Molnar today. “Bill would often alter works the day of a performance. He taught me about honesty and showing up and that everything is a work in progress.”

William Forsythe also created multiple ballets for NDT. He made his debut creation for the company, 'Say Bye Bye' in 1980. Photo: Jorge Fatauros

Molnar felt privileged to have been a part of such an innovative and creatively stimulating time working with Ballett Frankfurt but by 26 years old (10 years into her professional career) she felt that she was heading towards a burnout:, “I was asking myself some very personal questions that made me contemplate leaving the profession and take up the study of anthropology because of my interest in humanity and our many stories. But I quickly realized that for me, this curiosity could only be satisfied through dance. Dance had never let me down, but the politics of dance had. I knew I had to go deeper.”

 She returned to Vancouver, danced as a soloist with Ballet BC while teaching and directing a company for youth at Arts Umbrella and from there embarked on a diverse freelance career where she started to build her own projects and choreograph for companies around the world.

Molnar’s trajectory as a dancer and choreographer has influenced her creative mind and shaped the voice that defines her daring leadership today. “From an early age, I was given the opportunity to work with contemporary creators that ignited my natural born curiosity. I’ve always been interested in the larger perspective: Why do we do what we do? How do we make, how do we manifest an idea through the expression of the body? How does art connect the world? What is the development of an artist? The why and the how are just as important as the what. It is about the confidence to remain in the present, to trust that creativity will flow when you take the time to listen, and to never lose sight of the bigger vision. I will propagate that in The Hague too.”

Dance is, at its core, a democratic act. It harbors an unspoken intelligence about community and self-expression. We don’t all have to speak the same language, but we can share the same space. Dancers and their bodies, no matter how diverse, can find common ground and the sharing of ideas within minutes. I find that a beautiful metaphor for society.

Dialogue with the audience
According to Molnar, everything remains in a continuous state of development, which is something she also wants to show the NDT audience: “What they see on stage is never finished. Any work, like the artists performing it, is a living, breathing organism, changing with each day. I want to cultivate a conversation with our audience; I want to engage in a dialogue about their experiences. That feedback loop with the audience is very important to me. Dance is, at its core, a democratic act. It harbors an unspoken intelligence about community and self-expression. We don’t all have to speak the same language, but we can share the same space. Dancers and their bodies, no matter how diverse, can find common ground and the sharing of ideas within minutes. I find that a beautiful metaphor for society.”

Amare under construction (November 2020)

Molnar remains curious about other artistic disciplines and collaborations as well. Previously, she held the position as Director of Dance at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Canada, a centre for research and creation between artists from different disciplines. She divided her time between Ballet BC in Vancouver and the Banff Centre set in the majestic Canadian Rockies. As far as impressive nature is concerned, this will be something to get used to in The Hague. Even though NDT’s performances are currently staged in the Zuiderstrandtheater by the sea, soon the company will move to the new cultural hub Amare in the centre of town. “I look forward to the collaboration with the Residentie Orkest, the Royal Conservatoire and DMC (Dance-and music centre). It is a wonderful opportunity for exchange. It’s going to be a centre that offers diverse and engaging programming for our community. We are excited to be working with our partners to bring Amare to life.”

Sixty years young
Due to the impact of the corona pandemic, Molnar was forced to reinterpret the NDT programme for the entire season. “This time has pushed us to reflect and renew our vision; this is not the season we planned for but it will be the season that defines us in new and unique ways. For an international company such as NDT, the current global restrictions have had an enormous impact. Touring abroad with a large ensemble is not possible now. We are trying to be sensitive to our audience through specially adapted programmes and by turning our focus to alternative approaches such as live streaming, site-specific and installation type work. We want to adapt in a way that is creative and responsible to the moment. We are asking, what can we do now that we would not otherwise be able to?”

This type of questioning led the company to dedicate a number of weeks to an exchange with local artists. “There are many talented, international artists to be found here, so we invited eighteen different makers of diverse styles and backgrounds to share their practice. We also asked the NDT dancers with whom they would like to collaborate. This led to an exciting roster of artists coming through our doors such as Redouan Ait Chitt, Michael Schumacher, Anouk van Dijk, Astrid Boons, Amos Ben-Tal, Kenzo Kusuda, Dunja Jocic, and Connor Schumacher among others. It was a wonderful opportunity for us to generate new tools that we can take forward into future projects.”

NDT dancers in a workshop by Redouan Ait Chitt. Photo: Mikaela Kelly.

This time has pushed us to reflect and renew our vision; this is not the season we planned for but it will be the season that defines us in new and unique ways.

About the future Molnar shares: “I am inspired by NDT’s beautiful legacy and honoured to have this opportunity to support a new era of creative collaboration and exchange. It will be important to me that NDT feels it can continue to thrive as a leading creation house, focused on quality and creativity and the nurturing of the many inspired voices that make up the company. It is an ideal time to be opening the doors and introducing new voices, approaches and types of offerings for our artists and community while also celebrating and learning from the company’s heritage.”

Molnar is passionate about supporting young artists, creativity, leadership and the mind body connection. NDT has a wonderful suite of programs connected to talent development and education and Molnar is eager to explore new ideas, “I’m envisioning an adjunct research engine connected to the company that fosters innovation and creative thinking in an interdisciplinary environment, an additional curatorial platform for site specific work, internships and reaching remote communities through satellite education programs, to name a few.”

As Molnar steps into her position at NDT she is asking, “Are we sixty years old or sixty years young?” She plans to answer this by saying: “How do we allow ourselves to take risks?”

It is an ideal time to be opening the doors and introducing new voices, approaches and types of offerings for our artists and community while also celebrating and learning from the company’s heritage.