Esprit de Corps
Photos by Will Shilling
An exhaustive search for an artistic director to replace the legendary Gerard Charles kept bringing BalletMet and Edwaard Liang closer together. A former New York City Ballet dancer and world-renowned choreographer, Liang’s ready to bring his passion for dance and storytelling to the Columbus stage.
As a high-school student studying ballet in New Jersey, Adrienne Benz went to see Edwaard Liang on Broadway. The internationally lauded dancer and choreographer was taking a break from the New York City Ballet to appear in the Tony Award-winning “Fosse” from 2000 to 2001.
Enchanted by his dancing, Benz saw the show again and began following Liang’s career.
She finally met him in July 2007, at the yearly, three-week workshop of the National Choreographers Initiative in California. By then, Benz was a dancer with BalletMet, and Liang was a choreographer on the rise. While she was not among the group that worked with Liang, the two became friendly.
“When I met him, I would have to say I was a little bit star-struck,” she explains. Benz soon got over her apprehension as the two shared chats not only about his career, about which she says he is an “open book,” but also about more trivial matters, like the eating habits of a fellow dancer. “I remember being shocked at how much food he could actually eat and how much he loved to go to restaurants,” she says.
Benz was impressed by Liang’s easy, affable manner, especially since it cloaks the exacting standards he sets for those performing his works. “He’s very, very easy to talk to,” she says, “but also, at the same time, has high demands for his dancers and the work ethic that they carry with them and the work that they produce.”
Flash forward five years. In May 2012, BalletMet began looking for a successor to outgoing artistic director Gerard Charles (who was joining Joffrey Ballet as its new ballet master). Dozens of candidates were put on the initial list, as the company drew ideas from its network of teachers, colleagues and acquaintances. But Benz, who was on the search committee, thought of just one name.
“Since 2007, his career as a choreographer has just been booming,” she says. “He’s everywhere, choreographing on every big and small company around.” In a twist of fate worthy of ballet, the ex-workshop pals would soon be colleagues.
In February, BalletMet announced it had chosen 38-year-old Liang to be the company’s new artistic director, its fifth in 35 years but the first to emerge from the world-famous ranks of the New York City Ballet (where Liang danced from 1993 to 2000, and again from 2004 to 2007, with stints on Broadway and with the Nederlands Dans Theater in between) and also the first who arrives with an international reputation as a choreographer. Benz characterizes his work as “more on the contemporary side,” but still based in classical technique—a good fit, perhaps, for a city as diverse as Columbus. Liang speaks of embracing his audience’s “taste value,” but also pushing it.
If there was a popularity contest among dancers-turned-choreographers, Liang just might win it. Before he could begin work at BalletMet full-time this month, he had some unfinished business to attend to—more than some, actually. Between stops in Columbus to prepare for his first season, he squeezed in trips to San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Germany and Singapore, among others, to oversee various productions of his dances. Such is the globe-trotting life of a freelance choreographer—at least one as accomplished as Liang.
“He’s choreographed at the Kirov and San Francisco Ballet, and he’s been at [Pacific Northwest Ballet]. He’s been to Asia,” says Wendy Whelan, a principal dancer of the New York City Ballet who partnered with Liang on stage there and later danced in works he created. “He’s really seen the world of dance.”
It is a long way from where Liang started—comparable to the distance between Marin County, California, where he grew up, and the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, nicknamed the “Giant Egg,” where one of his dances premiered in 2012. The native of Taipei, Taiwan, arrived in the U.S. at
age 5, when his father, who ran a shipping business, moved the family to Marin County. His first ballet classes, at the school of the Marin Ballet, were intended as a kind of punishment after he caused a ruckus in the lobby as his sister, Victoria, was studying her pliés and pirouettes.
Soon, however, he realized that the studio was just the sort of cocoon he needed after a childhood filled to the brim with activities from violin lessons to karate (he and his sister are both black belts).
“I think what drew me to it was that ballet class is very much for me,” Liang says. “It was my time. I could be in the studio with my fellow dancers and students. It helped me in terms of finding space to be a little bit more quiet.” He adds, laughing, “Also, I was the only boy in my class, so it was great to get so much attention.”
At 13, when Liang began studying at the School of American Ballet (the student arm of New York City Ballet), he continued turning heads.
“I remember Ed when he was a student and Jerome Robbins had chosen him from the school to play a sort of pivotal role in his ballet ‘Watermill,’ ” says Whelan, referring to the legendary dance-maker whose classics include “West Side Story.” “It was exciting to see Jerry Robbins pick up on his talent at a really young age.”
Ultimately, Liang was a bit too young at 13 to perform in “Watermill,” though he got the chance to appear in another production of it several years later as a member of the corps of New York City Ballet. Before retiring from the company in 2007, he had attained the rank of soloist, but he was already arguably better known for his choreography.
Working with Whelan on a piece, Liang shared memories from his childhood to describe the motions he had in mind for her. “I don’t usually have choreographers who explain why they want you to do this kind of movement,” she says. “It made me feel that much closer to the source of what he wanted. I enjoyed knowing that he had a real reason for each little movement.”
Dance critics have taken note, too. In 2005, The New York Times dubbed Liang a “promising choreographer,” while a year later Dance Magazine ranked him among “25 to watch.” More recently, the Houston Chronicle observed that the movements of Liang’s “kinetically thrilling” ballet “Murmuration”—one of more than 20 in his repertoire—made it “the kind of dance that makes you wish you could hit the rewind button on a live performance.” Yet when BalletMet began casting about for its new artistic director, the board was not necessarily looking for a star choreographer.
“We weren’t locked into one profile initially,” says former board chair and development director Nancy Strause, who helped lead the search. The board’s primary criteria included artistic vision and taste, significant performance experience and recognition in the dance community, among other factors. When Benz first put Liang’s name in the hat, it was added to a pool of nearly 90 candidates.
It was wise to cast such a wide net. Strause notes that BalletMet has enjoyed stability in the position—four artistic directors between 1978 and 2012, with Gerard Charles having served for the longest term at 11 years. It is an essential role—no one else in a ballet company is responsible not only for what is put on stage but also for assuring that the seats in the theater are filled.
Liang kept making the cut. His recruiters felt a growing excitement about the storehouse of dances he brought with him. “Having his work as part of what we’re doing is going to give us a unique signature among other major regional companies and give us an identity aligned with that,” Strause says.
Liang sees practical advantages, too. He offers the example of a hypothetical double bill: If BalletMet wanted the services of a gifted but expensive choreographer, Liang himself would balance that budget by including one of his own, less expensive pieces in the program to allot more money for the desired choreographer. Liang hopes to choreograph at least one new work each season.
It took a while before Liang reconciled himself to the idea that joining BalletMet was the right thing for him. In years past, he was approached by other companies about becoming their artistic director, but his answer was always no.
“I had no interest in the very beginning to be an artistic director,” he says, but he began to cotton to the notion as he went through the interview process. “Being a consultant and flying from company to company, you don’t really get the fruits of your labor in any sort of way besides the ballets and experience that you have with these companies.”
Strause notes that most choreographers reach a point where “you want your own dancers and you want to see an arc and you want to invest in them.” By the time BalletMet had settled on Liang, Liang had settled on BalletMet. “I think over the course of time he saw this could be the place where that could happen.”
BalletMet has been forced to reckon with the recent economic downturn. In the 2008-09 season, the company lost about $400,000, followed by two seasons of more modest shortfalls, during which time the board approved spending a total of about $500,000 in cash reserves.
Beginning in 2010, however, the company launched its Moving Forward initiative, a three-year “special gift” campaign focused on “investing in artistic product and marketing to make gains in earned revenue, especially ticket sales,” Strause says.
Unlike arts organizations that engaged in “slicing and dicing” in order to stay afloat, she explains, “we made the decision that we needed to actually move from something slightly below a $5 million budget toward a $6 million budget to be sustainable into the future and to preserve the audiences that we have developed.”
Strause points to the return of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra for “Nutcracker” performances (after one year in which recorded music was used) and the maintenance of a roster of 25 dancers (following a planned drop to 23 in the 2009-10 season) as examples of investments audiences would notice.
Financially, it has paid off. She says that, for the first time, this year’s budget will approach $6 million and ticket sales are about $500,000 greater than they were three years ago. She feels the distinctive attributes of Liang—arriving with an acclaimed repertoire and a seemingly infinite number of contacts in the dance world—will inspire ticket sales and other giving. “I think he is going to set a high bar on artistic excellence,” she says. “People are going to want to help make that happen.”
By design, the Edwaard Liang era at BalletMet will unfold gradually. Due to the timing of his hiring, he will be overseeing a schedule laid out by artistic consultant James Kudelka for the 2013-14 season.
“It gives me an opportunity to understand the organization,” Liang says. “I really do believe that my role for the first year is to listen.” But the season will conclude with the first full glimpse of what Liang’s BalletMet will look like: a triple bill with “something for every palate,” he says. It will include a new work of his own, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s “Carousel (A Dance)”—an acclaimed riff on the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical—and a yet-to-be-announced avant-garde piece.
But, he says, just because his first program comes last does not mean that rehearsals for it will also be saved for last. “We’re starting with some of the work in the very beginning of the year … because I really would like to create and foster a hotbed of creativity. I want the artists and the choreographers to feel as if they’re being honored and they’re being welcomed.”
In spite of his recent hectic travel schedule, Liang has already started getting to know his dancers, taking in several rehearsals of “Napoli,” which was performed on the same bill as the company’s recent “Little Mermaid.” “I’ve done ‘Napoli’ for a long time,” he says, so he wanted to offer his expertise as well as show his dancers “the environment that I’d like to create in the studio.” Adrienne Benz, for one, appreciates it.
“If he pushes us as hard as he can, sometimes it might require so much of a tearing-you-down-to-build-you-back-up type of thing,” she says. “If we don’t keep growing and getting stronger and being able to do the thing that these huge companies and training schools are training people to do, we’re just going to start to sink.”
Whelan believes Liang’s knowledge of the body makes him adept at teaching dancers of all ages. “I’m I don’t know how many years older than Ed,” she says, but when they once worked together on a tricky piece by Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo, “he was helping me learn how to do the steps better, and to do it with more understanding physically.”
While Liang pledges to bring back the old standbys that have “worked for a very long time and that audiences have embraced into their culture,” such as former artistic director David Nixon’s popular “Dracula,” he does not shrink from his goal to expand the company’s repertoire to include more cutting-edge fare. He says that his job is “to challenge the audience to see more,” and he gives a very real-world example to explain why Columbus balletomanes are ready for such a change: the iPad. “Are you going to build it so that you dumb down some of these particular features so that it’s less impressive so that it’s acceptable for them?” he asks. “Or do you want to be imaginative and just know that you’re building a really good product? It’s something different and it’s new, but it doesn’t mean that they won’t be like, ‘Wow, this is exactly what I wanted—and I never knew that.’”
“I don’t think Columbus realizes yet what we have here,” Strause says with a laugh. But Liang seems to realize what he has in Columbus. While he will continue to work with other companies, he seems delighted to have found a new home base.
“This is a place where I can see myself being happy to live,” he says. “There’s great art, there’s lots of different organizations. I get to live in a house. I get to spend time with my partner, my dog. I really love cooking. There’s lots of pros in a personal sort of way. Do I want to see every part of Columbus? Yeah, because that’s what’s going to feed me.”
Peter Tonguette is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard.