Men of Vancouver is an editorial series featuring stylish and professional men in Vancouver. MofV producer and stylist, Jason Sarai of Style by Sarai, recently interviewed Branislav Henselmann for this exclusive in-depth photo editorial.
Executive Director, Ballet BC.
I got (and stayed) involved with this career because I believe that culture has the power to truly transform individuals, communities, and society at large.
When I was very young, I was mostly interested in books, and really wanted to become a librarian. There was a certain comfort in the idea of being surrounded by books, and to this day, the books I’ve collected and have received are my most treasured possession. Although I danced all along, my first serious professional aspiration was to become a scientist, and so before making the final decision to attend conservatory, I studied Mathematics and Biology in Munich, where I also went to high school. In a way, that childhood librarian and adolescent scientist both still inform my thinking and approach to my work.
However, when I was offered a place at the Rambert School in London, one of the most prestigious conservatories in Europe, I absolutely couldn’t turn it down. Upon graduation, dancing took me to Munich and New York, where I was fortunate to meet, work and learn from some of the most prolific artists and true luminaries in my sector. In fact, I’ve been wonderfully fortunate all along; following my dance career, I was offered a Master of Fine Arts fellowship to study at New York University, where I combined fine arts with the business studies at Tisch School of the Arts and Stern School of Business. This led to my very first post-dance career internship and subsequent job with New York City Ballet, the single largest dance organization in North America. New York City Ballet’s Choreographic Institute, where I worked as Artistic Curator, was also where I first met Emily Molnar, Ballet BC’s Artistic Director. Through the Institute, I worked closely with choreographers, dancers and composers from all over the world; giving me a global network of artistic directors and creatives. My interest in community outreach and education then led me to take on a position as the Head of Learning and Programming with DanceEast in England, where I supervised all dance related activities in the East of England.
This interest also took me a step further when I joined the Michael Clark Company in London, as Executive Producer. There, I initiated, produced and toured a number of high profile full evening works to theatres and museums worldwide. They included a recent production at the New York’s prestigious Whitney Biennial following the remarkable residency for Tate Modern’s immense Turbine Hall. By including both professional dancers and untrained volunteers, these residencies engaged the community at large, to generate choreography that expanded what our experience of movement and participatory art can be.
Then, in 2012, Emily Molnar and I saw each other at a reception at the House of Commons, following a retreat in the UK for artistic directors and producers in our field. We got talking about Ballet BC and the rest is history. I started with Ballet BC as Executive Director in July of that year.
Ballet BC is a company of incredibly talented artists, production and admin staff, with dedicated volunteers and Board members from Canada and around the world, all unified by our commitment to the ballet of today. The Company epitomizes all I’ve been interested in throughout my career, first as a performer and later as a curator and an executive; it’s always been about remaining at the forefront of innovation in the arts.
The Company combines classical integrity with a contemporary sensibility. Our work is grounded in the rigour and artistry of classical ballet yet focuses on and emphasizes innovation and the immediacy of the 21st century. Through this approach, we are truly committed to our role as leaders in the community, and key to this approach and work is a certain openness to the possibilities offered by involving communities through an innovative, collaborative approach in the creative process, and so redefining the nature and limits of contemporary art and its place, and role, in today’s society.
Our five year strategy sets the course for continued innovative producing, artistically and financially sound cross-arts programming, and developing an extensive audience outreach, creative learning and participation program. This will enable Ballet BC to further anchor itself as one of the most innovative, dynamic and respected performing arts organizations locally, nationally and internationally.
However, to propel the company forward and unfold its full potential, it takes a tremendous amount of hard work by many dedicated individuals. To lead the way, we need an organizational road map that simultaneously looks to the future, while acknowledging the current context within the arts and business landscape. This approach dictates the shift to a new institutional culture that is collaborative, cross-functional and driving toward shared goals. A company where each stakeholder (artist, admin, donor, volunteer, audience member) doesn’t “buy into the vision of the organization”, but, instead, aligns their personal vision with our institutional vision. Only then can we become a beacon of good practices and an example of how arts and the artist’s role in the society can evolve.
When I moved to Vancouver just over two years ago, I knew that I was responsible for leading and developing local and global strategy and policy, and shaping and allowing a platform for what we knew was an award-winning program of performances and activities at Ballet BC. However, what I didn’t know much about at all, was Vancouver itself. So I hurled myself into trying to learn as much as I could, at a breakneck speed, and along the way I heard a number of attributes assigned to Vancouver, sometimes seemingly without much thought or almost as an apology.
Vancouver, in the world’s eyes, is one of the most important incubators of immensely influential artists, who defined entire generations globally. Yet they were virtual unknows in this city. “Vancouver is a young city.” “Vancouver is a transient city.” When I tried to understand what was meant by it, I often received a blank stare.
If I understand one thing about this today, it is that the observations shouldn’t be seen as an apology or a hindrance but, instead, as an incredible opportunity. We have at hand an incredible opportunity and privilege to write the future history of this city. And the pen this history is written with is culture. Creating a distinctive cultural identity. A common story for all communities and a thread that will, in time, permeate, connect, and make us intrinsically proud of our city that can be so much more than just its stunning natural beauty. This issue is, of course, not only about the perceived value of the arts in our community, but equally about a very pragmatic approach to cultural democracy and societal – and by extent – economic development and sustainability.
Five years is not a very long time, but I hope that we will be able to embrace this approach wholeheartedly. Certainly it is a part of our vision at Ballet BC.
In short: there are no challenges in mixing the worlds of arts and business together. This dichotomy is entirely artificial and such thinking has already proven damaging and shortsighted. Instead, there is a myriad of opportunities that most advanced corporations and organizations have been tapping into over years, if not decades.
Ballet BC is, by its nature, an innovative and collaborative company, with the economic model of creativity at its core. This is important to note because we know that today, in marketplaces of any kind, competitive advantages are often based on innovation. Moreover, arts teach us to accept ambiguity as a permanent state, which is vital in light of black swan events (no pun intended) such as the global economic crash in 2008. They also teach us how to successfully learn from failure by allowing for it in the first instance – in fact, fail more often.
The issue of Arts and Business has been one of particular professional and personal interest thought my career. Indeed, as a former graduate student who chose not to conform to either the arts or the business path (and thus got in trouble with respective schools numerous times), recent conversations about the value of Master of Fine Arts in business are very close to home. To quote a recent article I read: “In our competitive and evolving economy, being logical and analytical is no longer enough. Left brain is out. Right-brain noodling, the kind of processing that is intuitive and creative and synthetic, will soon rule the day… The MFA is the new MBA.”
Harvard Business Review responded to the article by highlighting the strengths of this approach. They have mainly to do with fundamental business questions: How to take criticism; What motivates people; How to engage your audience; when to let go of good ideas.
These questions are applicable to arts, business and, indeed, civic, provincial and federal politics.
I don’t see challenges, just opportunities.
One of the people who directly influenced and changed my view of what dance is and should be is late Merce Cunningham: the great master of choreography who shifted the paradigm of contemporary art.
Here’s his quote as an advice for not only aspiring artists, but also audience members: “You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.”
Ballet BC has been increasingly recognized for the excellence of the work we’ve been performing and creating, nationally and internationally, and with this recognition, we are invited more frequently to act as Vancouver and B.C. cultural ambassadors on national international stages. We have also been taking part in a number of conferences and presentations, so I travel quite a bit to either set up the tours, meet with the presenters and programmers, or partake in international conferences. In fact, this is written on a train to a conference in Seattle.
Although I’ve been lucky to have lived in some of the largest cities and cultural centers in the world, and have visited many others, one of the places I enjoy traveling back to most is a tiny town on the Croatian Adriatic coast, a true jewel, called Opatija. I’ve spent most of my childhood summers there and have made some of my fondest memories over the years on the Adriatic.
There is an immense sense of pride that comes from deeply rooted, shared culture. While we have some of the most globally prominent artists and arts organizations working and living in the city, it is that civic pride that is still missing.
Here’s an example: I was recently in Dusseldorf, Germany, attending Tanzmesse, a biennial, cross-European dance event. Taking a cab to the conference venue upon my arrival, without needing a cue, my Turkish cabbie greeted me, in his broken German, as “one of the dance people”, knew exactly where to drive to without even needing to be notified, and during the ride gave me a long lecture on the importance of arts in the region, listing every single museum and performance venue, including their specializations, with an incredible sense of pride. He was an immigrant, and what made him so proud to identify with his city of choice, where he lived for the last 25 years, was the culture it boasted. It became his identity, his story.
Nevermind the discussion between a cheese counter clerk and his customer about Categorical Imperative I overheard during the same trip.
There is a lot of work ahead of us in Vancouver. Clearly the difference is not in standards, but in full embracement.
My private and professional lives are so intertwined, interconnected and aligned, that it’s very hard to draw a line between them. Ballet BC is an arts organization, and if, at best, art is a reflection of society at large, then it is clear why it is important to constantly keep a finger on the pulse of everything that is current. I will spend Monday to Friday in the office, or on the road, and weekends either with our performances at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, watching other shows, or spending my time with friends and colleagues who are incredibly inspiring and motivating, and teach me so much on a daily basis.
Food (including researching and consuming). Working out (Crossfit is a current obsession, as is running along the Seawall). Exploring (curiosity killed the cat).
Apropos food and exploring, and culture, we are truly lucky to have such an astonishing variety of foods and excellent restaurants in the city. Some of my favourite restaurants include L’Abatoir, Minami and Via Tevere, but there so many more. I enjoy the Burger and Scotch Egg from Pourhouse, Ramen from Ramen Jinya, Banh Mi at Union, Pork Belly at Bao Bei, and Spicy Tuna Roll from that hole-in-the-wall, Yamamoto Sushi. I can go on for days (and I do).
First of all, desserts are my all. From L’Opera at Minami and sharing desserts with some of my favourite people at Yew, to feverishly looking for farmer’s markets in search of Banana Brownies from Pure Bread, I’m always on the hunt for my favourite sweets! I love those incredible Croissants from Ganache and the Butter Tart from JJ Bean. I presume that this is Vancouver, only, otherwise I’ll spend the next few hours listing all my favourite places around the world (Kaiserschmarrn in Munich, anyone?). And that Bella Gellateria…
Black Sesame and Texas Pecan with Sour Cherry. *weeps*
Revolver, New Town Bakery, Vancouver Art Gallery Café, Nelson the Seagull.
Nelson the Seagull is just what it is. It’s not pretending to be anything else. I love its unpretentiousness, lovely, easygoing staff and the heavy smell of bread with foggy windows dripping with condensed water on the inside in the winter.
It’s all about that incredible bread for me at Nelson the Seagull. Anything with the bread – cheese and marmalade? Perfection.
I asked, and this is what came in: Classic preppy and polished but with a modern edge. Khakis, v-necks, polos, and loafers are in heavy rotation, but always in a modern cuts and paired with eclectic accessories. Mid-century modern hair (trim on the sides, longer on top), not afraid of Birkenstocks. Well stocked in basics, knowing that the key to putting great combinations together is having lots of great pieces to choose from.
Little Eddie from Grey Gardens comes to mind immediately, with her iconic “This is the best costume for the day!”
In dance, we like to say that our training, and ballet training in particular, is a school for life. Not only because of the highly regimented daily routines, but because of its approach to work, to creativity, to functionality. Day in, day out, over decades, a dancer comes into the studios to do the same exercise over and over again, and unless one reinvents them and reinterprets them, there is no movement ahead. As with dance and art, so also with style: functionality, individualism and non-conformism, coupled with passion, are the ultimate source of creativity. Style is one of the outlets of this idea.
I think that to this day, when it comes to approach to style, Martha Graham’s quote sums it best:
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware… There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
A good way to end this article.
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