Edwaard Liang Celebrates a Decade of Dance at BalletMet with an Ambitious ‘Swan Lake’
The Columbus ballet company will close the season on April 28-30 with a massive production of the Tchaikovsky classic.
It’s been nearly a decade since BalletMet artistic director Edwaard Liang first stepped onto the stage of the Ohio Theatre to introduce an opening-night production before an eager crowd. Liang’s friendly, conversational introductions have become something of a tradition at BalletMet, but that night in October 2013, when the company was set to perform “Swan Lake” in collaboration with Cincinnati Ballet, it was all new to the first-year artistic director.
“I do remember that I didn’t want to let myself overthink anything,” recalls Liang, who had a substantial reputation as a dancer and choreographer when he came to Columbus but had never led a company before. “So much was flying at me, not only in terms of the production, but learning the organization, learning the community, getting introduced to a lot of leaders that drive Columbus and what does that mean to be a part of the community and growing BalletMet?”
For the finale of Liang’s 10th season with the company, BalletMet will again perform “Swan Lake” at the Ohio Theatre on April 28–30. Much will be the same: The Tchaikovsky music will still thrill, the ballerinas will again soar, and Liang will undoubtedly once more stand before the audience to help set the stage.
In other ways, though, the show will be a measure of how much has changed for Liang in a decade’s time. “Being an [artistic director], for good and for bad, you have a completely different vantage point,” Liang says. “I can firmly say that I’m a very different individual from when I took over the company.”
Liang, who turns 48 in April, was born in Taipei, Taiwan. At 5, his family settled in Marin County, California, where he discovered a gift for dance. When he was 13, he began training with the prestigious School of American Ballet in New York City.
Having found his life’s calling, Liang eventually graduated to the school’s world-renowned parent company, the New York City Ballet. With the exception of a four-year gap during which he performed with the Nederlands Dans Theater in The Hague, Liang danced with the iconic Manhattan troupe from 1993 to 2007. Thereafter, he began blazing a trail as a choreographer.
An A+ Name
The unusual spelling of Edwaard Liang's first name goes back to his childhood when a Buddhist monk urged his family to add a second "a" to his given name to avoid a terrible event that was supposed to occur to him at the age of 13
In one way or another, Liang has been immersed in dance since the time he was a young child, but running BalletMet has been uniquely fulfilling. “That is something that I’ve always wanted, even before I fully realized it,” Liang says. “BalletMet, to me, is an actualization of some of these hopes and dreams that I’ve had for decades, and I didn’t even know it.”
Liang’s legacy at the company is striking: At BalletMet’s dance academy, he has taken what was a small preprofessional program and enlarged it into a robust training ground for more than 60 promising young artists. “There’s a lot of future for this academy,” he says.
At BalletMet itself, an overwhelming majority of the 26 company members have been hand-picked by Liang, who holds regular auditions throughout the country. Today, BalletMet labels 42 percent of its roster as “diverse,” up from 21 percent a decade ago. “The brilliant thing about dance is that we are able to show conversations without even having conversations,” says Liang, pointing to the importance of having representation onstage and presenting dances that reflect a variety of perspectives. That includes the perspective of Liang, who, as a choreographer, has continued to create his signature abstract short dances, including “Airavata” and “Tributary,” while also masterminding extravagant superproductions for hundreds of dancers, including “Dorothy and the Prince of Oz.”
Once always on the go, Liang has settled down. He and his husband, Columbus City Schools assistant principal John Kuijper, make their home in German Village. “The quality of life that I can have with my husband here in Columbus, Ohio, I can’t replicate anywhere in the world,” Liang says. “From my house in German Village to the airport, it’s 15, 20 minutes, tops.”
Not that he’s looking to get out of town: Liang and Kuijper enjoy gardening, cooking and simply sitting by their fire pit outside. They also are on “the other end” of an extensive home renovation. “Internally, our house is mostly renovated,” Liang says. “We’re onto the next project, which is going to be a garage and what you’d call an in-law suite.”
Under Liang, however, BalletMet remains a work in progress. The artistic director takes pride in the company’s new “Swan Lake”—a mammoth endeavor that BalletMet will perform this time without the involvement of Cincinnati Ballet. “This has been many years in the making in terms of slowly acquiring and building the amount of tutus and the amount of dancers … to perform in this ballet,” says Liang, who points to one “Swan Lake” statistic of which he is particularly proud. “For the first time for BalletMet—and, I would say, for most companies within the Midwest—we’ll have 32 swans onstage,” he says. “We’re going for it.”
That detail is representative of Liang’s tenure. “What I love about BalletMet and our team is that we’re constant students,” he says. “It’s exciting to be a part of a dynamic, growing city that is looking forward, and it means that BalletMet is a part of that.”
This story is from the April 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.