Jay Rankin Revitalizes Ballet BC

One year ago, Ballet B.C. was on death’s door, with ?finances so tattered it was forced to lay off all its staff and dancers. 


One year ago, Ballet B.C. was on death’s door, with 
finances so tattered it was forced to lay off all its staff and dancers. 

A top-to-bottom overhaul has since saved B.C.’s premier dance institution from oblivion, but the task of remaking it into a financially and artistically healthy organization continues. Enter new executive director Jay Rankin, who began his job last month. A 
veteran manager in Canada’s dance scene, he left his post at the Toronto Dance Theatre to return to the city where he got his start in the business.

What is Ballet B.C.’s condition today? Is it finally emerging from its dark period?

Oh, we are. Things are going well. Financially, we’re basically operating from a zero situation, which is not a bad place to be. We have no debts – although nobody’s lining up to give us credit, I suppose. But there’s tremendous goodwill in the community, so we have reason to be carefully optimistic.

What went wrong?

For a company like this, you have to make sure that the message, the buy-in, is really clear and that people are accountable and take ownership in the company. A huge part of what I do is partnering with the other leaders here. I’m not interested in working with an artistic director who does not have a sense of responsibility to the bottom line. And I wouldn’t expect my artistic director to want to work with an executive director whose interest is only in financial control. You can get dangerously out of sync. I’ve been around dance for a long time; I’ve seen the collapse and destruction of many companies. And it’s sad; it has a human tragedy to it. It’s awful. And when it’s on the scale of a regional ballet company, it strikes at the psyche of the community. 

So where does the company go from here? 

We want to create a contemporary ballet company with an emphasis on new Canadian work, as opposed to the classical Swan Lakes, Giselles and Onegins. It’s a model that’s very common in Europe but does not exist in Canada. So the competitive advantage I see is that Ballet B.C. will be one of the continental leaders in developing new contemporary ballet, which has a growing market. 

Is Vancouver a good place to pilot a different model?

Well, it has advantages and disadvantages. We’re off the beaten path, so the influence of what everyone else is doing doesn’t seep into our practice quite as easily. So you become more special. The disadvantage is that you have to work that much harder for other people to notice you. It was easier for me, even at a smallish Toronto company, to have the ear of executives at banks or communications companies, and if you have closer access to those people who have the money, that’s a big leg up.

Over 30 years, you’ve worked with companies across the country. How does Vancouver’s artistic character compare with that of other Canadian cities?

There’s a tremendous artistic boldness in Vancouver. It’s very widespread. And the difficulty is, of course, to get beyond that first stage where people have wonderful ideas and great dreams. They need to be fed. And the government support and the market is just not such that these artists are able to grow a certain critical mass to get to more developed levels. But the talent is screaming in the underground – really strong and fearless and bold and vocal. What’s holding them back is not the geography; it’s all about having the resources and the infrastructure, and knowing how to get to the next level. So what really jazzes me is arts organizations; I really love how they work and making them work well.

What is the most inspiring performance you’ve seen?

I saw the Berliner Ensemble do the play Mother Courage. It was all in German. I didn’t understand a word, but I felt as though I understood everything on stage. Anything that’s of the very best, I love. I also remember seeing the Talking Heads in concert back in the ’80s, and I thought that was unbelievably beautiful. 

After the performing arts, what’s your next favourite form of entertainment?

Reading fiction. That’s the pathway to my grasp on the world, for sure. I’m now reading James Joyce. I’m into Ulysses right now.

It can be a real quest to get through Joyce.

It’s slow, but it gives me a lot right now. There’s something about both the rigour and the playfulness, and the seriousness with which he treats the ordinary. There are ordinary things he elevates.