What a ballet company can teach you about leadership

Teamwork en pointe

ballet company

Ballet BC is not your average ballet company. There are no prima ballerinas. No dancers hungrily vying for the spotlight. Instead, it’s a place where dancers are given license to create and inform choreography and where, during rehearsals, they can frequently be found lending each other advice on form and technique. It’s the truest definition of an ensemble.

“Most traditional ballet companies operate like a high court: you have the ‘King’ and the ‘Queen’ type figures presiding and everyone else is siloed based on hierarchies; that’s not the type of company we wanted to create,” says Executive Director Branislav Henselmann, speaking of the work he’s been doing for the Vancouver-based company over the last six years alongside his partner, Artistic Director Emily Molnar. This year, they’re embarking on their most ambitious season yet as they celebrate the 30th anniversary of Ballet BC.

 

Executive Director Branislav Henselmann
Artistic Director Emily Molnar
Left: Executive Director Branislav Henselmann. Right: Artistic Director Emily Molnar

 

Henselmann and Molnar have an ease about them that makes it clear they’ve been working together a long time. As Executive Director, Henselmann oversees the administrative and production side of things, while Molnar’s duties as Artistic Director have her working with choreographers, running rehearsals, and managing tours and productions.

“There is a very sophisticated machine that we need to build around the performance itself”, says Henselmann, “Something Emily and I talked a lot about is that we wanted to make sure all the work produced backstage is a reflection of what you seen on stage — every word written for a brochure, a website has to be on par with every single combination and movement you see on stage.”

 

Ballet BC dancers
Dancers: Brandon Lee Alley, Emily Chessa, Scott Fowler, and Cristoph Von Riedemann. Photo credit: Michael Slobodian

 

Their first step was to start having more, and more candid, communication: “We really go in there, we research ideas, we question things. We go across a lot of the different areas together and talk about stuff as a team, ” says Molnar on a coffee break between rehearsals, “But when we come to final decisions, we make sure to give everyone — dancers, staff members — a lot more information about how and why we made those decisions. That way there’s no room to invent a storyline about it.”

Getting a versatile team all moving in the same direction isn’t unlike choreographing a new dance. Both take a lot of intention, practice, and reflection. And there are a lot of different ways to set it all in motion, as Molnar explains:

I think a lot of ballet companies are interested in excellence. And I think it becomes a question of leadership, as in: Do you achieve that through a fear-based situation or do you achieve that through motivation and empowerment?

That sounds very simplistic, but it’s incredibly difficult to achieve. Mostly because not everybody actually wants that. Some people really respond to hierarchy because maybe they like to know they’re proving something, they know exactly where they fit.

But it’s interesting to see how you can create a very equal situation where people are motivating themselves to fulfill their potential. It’s not about things being easy, it’s more about creating an environment where you’re not relying on someone else to push you or create fear in order for you to achieve. You’re doing it from your own desire.

 

Ballet BC dancers
Dancers Gilbert Small and Brett Perry. Photo credit: Michael Slobodian

 

Nurturing each other’s potential is engrained in the team’s mentality and it’s a responsibility that doesn’t just fall to leadership. This is apparent in the rehearsal studio when a duo begin practicing an intricate series of movements. Their necks craned under their arms, torsos twisting, one dancer calls to his partner: “Are you alright? Are you with me?”. He pauses as the other takes a moment to work through the movement. Molnar looks on but doesn’t interrupt. The dancer—having twisted and untwisted a handful of times to get a feel for the sequence—finally gives a nod and the two continue on together. At the end of their duet, the three huddle to talk through the movement.

Here we see Molnar’s point. When you create an environment where everyone is responsible for their partners’ potential, and held to the same standards, teams become much more driven towards mutual success.

Last year, another pair of dancers asked to take over the company’s social media in an effort to connect more closely with their supporters. Seeing a rare opportunity for people in the company to collaborate across teams, Molnar and Henselmann were only too happy to grant their request. Now dancers use Slack to work with Ballet BC’s youth volunteer group on developing the company’s audience base.

To Henselmann, this kind of teamwork is a good sign their model is working.

 

“There are companies that have way bigger budgets than we do. It goes back to the strength of culture. If your integrity and your premise of why you make — why you’re doing something — is sound and from the heart (or however you want to describe it) that will attract people. And money becomes — obviously, we all have to make a living — but it’s secondary to a greater desire to create change and create meaning.”

– Emily Molnar, Ballet BC Artistic Director
Emily Molnar
Ballet BC Artistic Director

 

Ballet BC work sessiom
Artistic Director Emily Molnar with dancer Derren Devaney. Photo credit: Michael Slobodian

 

Ballet BC shows sell out often. They’re known to work with some of the best choreographers in the world. Yet, according to industry standards, Ballet BC is relatively on the smaller side. A fact that doesn’t seem to really affect the company all that much, Molnar says.

“There are companies that have way bigger budgets than we do. It goes back to the strength of culture. If your integrity and your premise of why you make — why you’re doing something — is sound and from the heart (or however you want to describe it) that will attract people. And money becomes — obviously, we all have to make a living — but it’s secondary to a greater desire to create change and create meaning.”

This anniversary is especially meaningful. Molnar likens it to a person turning 30 years old: “What does it mean to be thirty?”, she says, “You have a bit of history behind you, you have some weight, but also this urge to go forward. It’s a really beautiful moment. It’s a turning point.”

 

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If you find yourself lucky enough to be in Vancouver, B.C. this spring, consider catching one of Ballet BC’s beautiful performances. You can learn more about their program here.


Lima Al-Azzeh is a writer who still doesn’t know how to ride a bike.

Slack is the collaboration hub, where the right people are always in the loop and key information is always at their fingertips. Teamwork in Slack happens in channels — searchable conversations that keep work organized and teams better connected.