Branislav Henselmann: Ballet business

Ballet BC is back in the black, and the company's executive director plans to keep it that way

A professional dance career, international connections and a degree in business made Branislav Henselmann an ideal candidate for Ballet BC's executive director position

Canadian tourists who travel to London, Paris or New York tend to go for the cultural experience.

When New Yorkers, Parisians and Londoners come to Vancouver, it's not usually for culture, arts or entertainment – it's for the mountains and sea, the skiing, the fishing, the whale watching.That's just one of the challenges Vancouver arts and culture organizations such as Ballet BC face: convincing Vancouverites and tourists alike that Vancouver is more than just a pretty face.

Another challenge is shifting demographics. If arts and culture organizations are to increase their memberships and ticket sales, they need to build a new base of support from generations X and Y.

At 38, Branislav Henselmann – who was born in Belgrade, has danced in Munich, London and New York and speaks six languages – has both youth and artistic sophistication going for him. Both will come in handy in his role as executive director at Ballet BC – a job he has held for nearly a year.

"He studied as a dancer and danced professionally, and then decided to go into the world of business and the arts, so he has that intimate understanding of the art form, which is wonderful for that position – and not common," said Ballet BC artistic director Emily Molnar, who is largely responsible for bringing Henselmann to Vancouver.

"The other thing is that Branislav comes with an enormous international perspective. He brings a lot of international connections for us and an understanding of the international dance world."

Molnar knew Henselmann from the New York City Ballet, where he was curator for the ballet's choreographic institute and Molnar was working as a choreographer.

They ran into each other again in London at a retreat for ballet artistic directors 2012.

Molnar told him about Ballet BC, which was rebuilding itself from bankruptcy and was looking for a new executive director.

"She was telling me about the company, how well the company was doing," Henselmann said. "The more I was listening to her, the more I was, like, 'This sounds really exciting.'"

Henselmann came to Vancouver to see a show and, in July last year, was offered the job. He arrived at a time when the company was getting back on track after a painful restructuring.

In 2009, the company was forced to lay off all of its dancers, seek creditor protection and undergo a major reorganization.

Henselmann credits Molnar, chairman Kevin Leslie and his predecessor, Jay Rankin, for pulling the company back from the brink of bankruptcy and rebuilding it.

"They changed the performance model, and the performance model is very much tied with the business model," he said.

In the past, the company's artistic director did much of the choreography. Now, Molnar choreographs just one of nine productions each year. The company now brings in guest choreographers and is more contemporary, less neoclassical.

"We bring in very influential choreographers – but also up-coming choreographers – from all over the world, and they actually create works," Henselmann said. "Next year there are nine works on the slate that Ballet BC will do – seven of those nine will be new works."

To expand its audience the company has tried to break down barriers between the audience and the dancers.

"What the company has done over the past couple of years is be very inclusive and very open with the audiences," Henselmann said. "We've been having Q&As, we've been having pre-show chats, artist salons, with choreographers coming here and talking to the audience. It goes hand-in-hand with marketing."

And, in an attempt to reach younger audiences, the company is hiring a digital-media specialist and plans to launch an outreach program designed to bring young, urban Vancouverties aged 21 to 45 into the ballet.

The company is also touring again – something it had not done for six years, performing in Ontario, Portland and Irvine, California. It will perform in Becket, Massachusetts, in July.

"A huge percentage of tourism going into London or New York has to do with cultural tourism," Henselmann said. "So there's this untapped potential [in Vancouver]. What we do have in B.C. is this world-class product, but people don't necessarily know it, so there's a lot of work that needs to be done there. It almost feels that there needs to be a shift in the paradigm, in terms of how we perceive culture here."

Born in 1975 in Serbia, Henselmann grew up with his father in Belgrade, before joining his mother in Germany to attend high school in Munich. He speaks English, Russian, German, Serbian, Croatian and Spanish.

With an interest and aptitude for science, he originally planned to go into medicine and research. Dancing was something he did as a hobby – something that started when he was a child with folk dancing. While in high school, he also studied ballet.

"But it was always kind of on the side," he said. "Back then it was totally a hobby."

He was good enough, however, to get noticed by the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance in London and asked to audition.

He was then awarded a German academic exchange fellowship to go to New York to study with renowned choreographer Merce Cunningham, and then spent four years dancing with the Johannes Wieland Dance Company.

Dancers, like athletes, have limited career spans, so all the time while he was dancing professionally, Henselmann was also exploring his post-dance career options.

He received a fellowship to do a master's degree at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, but managed to split his credits, allowing him to study both dance and business at NYU.

He landed a summer internship with New York City Ballet, was asked to stay, and continued to work there while finishing his second year of studies.

He worked with the ballet's George Balanchine Trust, which handles the licensing for the more-than-400 ballets that Balanchine choreographed and produced. He also worked with Peter Martins, the artistic director for the New York City Ballet.

After finishing his degree, he was asked to stay on full time and became the NYC Ballet Choreographic Institute's artistic curator.

In 2008, he went on a retreat for artistic directors and producers near London, where he was offered a job working with DanceEast.

Later, he became executive producer for the Michael Clark Company in London. While in London, he ran into Molnar at a reception for another retreat, which eventually led him to Vancouver.

As executive director, Henselmann manages the company's daily business affairs. The company has an administration staff of 10, 14 full-time dancers and three apprentices.

Ballet BC's budget is close to $3.5 million. About 40% of the revenue is made through ticket sales and memberships; the rest is contributed.

Four years after its reorganization, Ballet BC is finally back in the black.

"We had a very significant increase in both subscriptions and single-ticket sales," Henselmann said. "The last performance we had – Giselle – we were almost 50% over budget. The last two years, we are [showing] a surplus."

Ballet BC puts on three show runs three times each year – in fall, winter and spring.

This year's guest company will be Alberta Ballet, which will do two productions – Fumbling Towards Ecstacy, based on the music of Vancouver's own Sarah McLachlan, in November, and a production of the Nutcracker in December.

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