Nederlands Dans Theater announced today that Emily Molnar will become artistic director in August 2020. Molnar, who hails from Canada and currently leads Vancouver's Ballet BC, will take over the position from Paul Lightfoot, who has directed the prominent contemporary dance company since 2011.
The company's current artistic team includes artistic advisor Sol León, Lightfoot's choreographic partner, but this will be the first time in over 15 years that a woman will be at the helm. (It's unclear at the moment whether León will step down along with Lightfoot, or remain at the company.)
Are ballet companies different when led by a female artistic director?
Before becoming its artistic director, Karen Kain danced for every director in National Ballet of Canada's history, then staged ballets, did fundraising and observed the administrative offices under her predecessor James Kudelka. But she wasn't ambitious for the top job. Although she had a strong female role model in founder and first director Celia Franca, Kain says she didn't have huge confidence in her own management abilities. “I may have been naïve, but back then I was happy to be learning and to support James," says Kain. “I didn't necessarily think he was grooming me."
While ballet has always put a premium on female dancers, until recently few companies looked to women for the leading job. But there are some exciting changes today, from major appointments like Julie Kent at The Washington Ballet, to international ones like Aurélie Dupont at Paris Opéra Ballet and regional ones like Hope Muir at Charlotte Ballet. Will having more female directors have an impact on the field? Of course, leadership qualities vary from woman to woman. But many female directors share a history of creative perseverance, which can give them a desire to listen and learn from the limits placed on them. Besides acting as role models, these women often bring a more open-minded management style to an industry infamous for its stiff hierarchical history.
A Wealth of Experience
Lourdes Lopez at Miami City Ballet. Daniel Azoulay, Courtesy MCB
For decades, former ballerinas watched as principal men transitioned straight into artistic directorships, often without any outside job experience in-between, while the few exceptional women who made it usually did so with dazzling and varied resumés. The result is that most women who helm companies right now arrived with finely tuned visions. For example, when Lourdes Lopez took the reins of Miami City Ballet in 2012, she'd spent time reporting on the arts for television, managing The George Balanchine Foundation as its executive director and co-founding the contemporary ballet company Morphoses with Christopher Wheeldon. Virginia Johnson founded Pointe magazine (Dance Magazine's sister publication) before relaunching Dance Theatre of Harlem's company. Dorothy Gunther Pugh of Ballet Memphis earned a degree from Vanderbilt University and a fellowship from the Center for Social Innovation at Stanford University Graduate School of Business.
Victoria Morgan at Cincinatti Ballet. Matthew William, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet
“At one time, the few women running ballet companies of some size in America—Victoria Morgan, Stoner Winslett and myself—we all had college degrees, which was sort of unusual for artistic directors anywhere," says Pugh. “Did we have a different inclination from men that made us want a different toolset to enter that world? I don't know, but I was interested in so many things and knew I needed to be a leader."
Emily Molnar at Ballet BC. Michael Slobodian, Courtesy Ballet BC
Likewise, Emily Molnar felt the pull of leadership early on, but spent 10 years exploring various artistic management opportunities first: She ran a youth company, and worked as a solo artist and freelance choreographer. She feels these outside experiences influence the way she directs her dancers at Ballet BC today. “I am not interested in a top-down or fear-based structure," she says. After organizing a retreat for her dancers recently, Molnar has begun to ask them more about what they need and how they can contribute to the company. “Who wants to teach? Who wants to choreograph? Who wants to lead? We sat together, not producing work but discussing the vision they have for themselves and for the company," says Molnar. “Innovation comes not only from the stage but also the culture in which we make the work."
An Eye for Diversity
Virginia Johnson at DTH. Quinn Wharton for Pointe
Because they know the so-called glass ceiling so intimately, many female directors are serious about fostering diversity in ballet. For instance, Johnson is reinvigorating DTH with “Women Who Move Us," an initiative aimed at fostering new work by female choreographers of diverse backgrounds. At English National Ballet, Tamara Rojo recently presented a triple bill by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Aszure Barton and Yabin Wang, provocatively titled “She Said."
Since arriving at Grand Rapids in 2010, Patricia Barker has brought 50 works into the repertoire, more than half of them by women, including Ochoa's first full-length ballet. “The previous director was a choreographer and he took all of his work with him, which left nothing in the repertoire," she explains. Barker has embraced the agility of being a small company not bogged down by tradition. “The dancers have flourished by doing so many different works, and as a regional company, I want to provide the audience with a wide spectrum."
For Pugh, programming begins by considering the Memphis community. “We don't just say, 'Oh my gosh, we need a woman on the bill.' The program is set up around ideas we want to have a conversation about," she says. “Next fall we will chew on the ideas behind romantic and classical ballet, exploring the characteristics of these ballets while looking at both gender and racial imbalances."
A Nurturing Leadership Style
Whether or not they become mothers, women are often brought up to have more nurturing qualities. Yet, ballet remains a demanding field filled with tough choices and direct conversations. Stereotype or not, dancers often find women use greater empathy in their language and approach.
For Molnar, solving any difficult personnel puzzle is about having a deeper conversation surrounding artistic fulfillment. “Is someone happy? Are they inspired? Do they want to be in the studio?" asks Molnar. She resists referring to company members as girls or boys, believing it is important to treat her dancers as accountable, self-directed women and men.
Dorothy Gunther Pugh at Ballet Memphis. Carla McDonald, Courtesy Ballet Memphis
“I always get a variety of opinions when I am giving feedback," says Kain. “I try to be sensitive to my relationship to the person—how much trust we have and how much they can accept what I am saying." Pugh agrees: “Never mind HR rules, you have to understand that young artists are vulnerable and be kind first. They might not be able to see what you see."
This type of compassion can help to maintain the health of organizations in trouble or transition. “A lot of times, directors come in and they really want to change a company," says Jeanette Delgado, principal dancer with MCB who spent much of her career under the direction of Edward Villella. “But Lourdes was so thoughtful about how the transition would affect everyone and so it has been a gradual shift instead of a storm." In the studio, the company has adjusted to a new way of working. “Lourdes is more thought-oriented—she takes her time to break phrases apart, she really asks us to think," says Delgado. “Edward was more about the energy and the attack, but Lourdes invites us into a more pensive process."
Patricia Barker at Grand Rapids Ballet. Courtesy Grand Rapids Ballet
The effects these women have had are promising. While Barker has grown both the size of Grand Rapids Ballet and its stature (with more than 400 dancers showing up to this year's open audition), both Ballet Memphis and Miami City Ballet have recently toured to New York City to much acclaim. Kain recently celebrated her tenth year with a healthy company of 76 dancers. And a new generation is growing up under the influence of these powerful women.
“It makes me excited that, for the younger generation of dancers starting with Lourdes, the gender issue isn't even a thing," says Delgado. “They don't realize it wasn't always the way it is now. I always thought ballet mistress was the next step, but now there is this spark of possibility."
Ballet BC dancer Darren Devaney. Photo by Michael Slobodian, Courtesy Ballet BC.
Inspiration can come from anywhere, but for choreographers, the body itself is a rich source. Some dancemakers may be drawn to specific physical traits: lanky limbs, an articulate spine, a muscular build. But those features can’t move on their own. There’s always a heart, a mind, a spirit, a psyche—some form of inner life propelling what we see externally, animating what the body can do. Dance Magazine asked four choreographers: What body inspires you?
Bill T. Jones
Artistic director, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company
We’re a company that started out with very eccentric bodies: Larry Goldhuber, Arthur Aviles, people like that. Some of the repertory has such a strong imprint from those dancers that you’re always looking for some version of it, though you don’t want to be shameless about trying to reproduce it. Of course, there aren’t many Larry Goldhubers with 300 pounds, but my company must always have a very large man, somebody with stature. Larry always made me feel small when I danced with him.
For the kind of movement we do, it’s good to have long arms, a supple back, to be able to find stillness in a way that’s hopefully not dead. We talk about the skeleton as rock-and-roll: the bones of the skeleton, the way you let your backbone slip. It’s first got to be strong, like a marionette, so you can articulate from some central point.
Shayla-Vie Jenkins is one example of that. I love her beauty. When Arnie and I started out, we never had a regal black woman with training. They were going to Mr. Ailey or somewhere else. But Shayla was attracted to my movement. Because of the length of her limbs, the way there’s something aloof about her, she can deliver abstract movement convincingly. That’s more about the quality of interpretation than the body, but the two work together in my mind.
Photo of Bill T. Jones, Courtesy NYLA.
Artistic director, Ballet BC
There’s not one body type that interests me. What interests me is a dancer who is fully engaged inside of their body. There’s no blockage, no insecurity. They’re confident in who they are, and you can sense it in the way they dance. That usually leads, for me, to a body that is strong, agile, vulnerable, expressive and can really move through three-dimensional space.
Ballet BC is reflective of that. Every one of the dancers looks very different. They’re not the same height; some are more muscular. What’s interesting to me is how a group of individuals works as a collective. I think that when everybody is a carbon copy it misses the point of what artistic expression is.
There’s a dancer in Ballet BC, Darren Devaney, who is very slight. One would think on first observation that he wouldn’t be able to partner, but he’s one of the strongest and most supple dancers I’ve seen. Some of the greatest artists I’ve seen are the dancers with more difficult bodies: Maybe they don’t have the greatest arched feet, or the most flexibility, or an enormous amount of rotation or that fabulous arabesque. But it can be more interesting to watch, because they’ve had to create a real understanding of how their body works and what they’re saying with it.
Photo of Emily Molnar courtesy Ballet BC.
Artistic director, Dorrance Dance
I like working with a diverse range of individuals. A great example is Ryan Casey, who’s 6' 8" and really lanky. He stands out the second he’s onstage. That’s not just another body to me. It’s a body that inspires character work specifically. I centered a lot of scenes around him. I liked playing with the idea that he could look totally gangly, almost absurd, and still execute every sound with utmost precision and clarity and tone and nuance. You’d never think that someone with feet that big and a body that long could wield it with the same efficiency as a smaller, more compact dancer. I love that paradox and the character that comes from it.
I don’t mind if a dancer has some extra weight, some extra meat, a lot of muscle or barely any, as long as they have control. I want dancers who are strong and sharp but also capable of great subtlety. Of course, they have to have incredibly intelligent feet. The music and the integrity of our technique comes first. I want that clarity. But I do ask for more.
Dorrance (left) rehearsing a Petite Suite, with Ryan Casey (right). Photo by Joni Lohr, Courtesy Dorrance.
Artistic director, Gallim Dance
I could tell you everything that’s physically beautiful about any of my dancers. But if someone didn’t have the soul or the imagination or the depth to try something new and be bold, I don’t think those physical features would matter.
I see the body in its most inspiring state when a dancer lets their imagination change the makeup of their structure from one moment to the next, like the softness or thickness of their skin. One of my dancers, Dan Walczak, has really transformed in that way. He came from an approach that was more release-based, I think. There was something hesitant in his movement. We really had to get him to engage: engage his fire, his muscles, his focus, his jump. And he completely changed. He has a huge range of expressivity. You can feel his soul, his compassion, his sadness or his silliness. His heart is all over his body.
Miller watching Gallim’s Gwyneth Mackenzie and Matthew Perez. Photo by Carey Kirkella.
Siobhan Burke, a former Dance Magazine associate editor, is a dance critic for The New York Times.