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The former NYCB soloist on his circuitous journey from dancer to choreographer for the company that launched his career
The past and present are colliding for Edwaard Liang. The former New York City Ballet soloist, now a prolific choreographer and artistic director of BalletMet, has created his first work for the company that set his career in motion. The ballet is called, appropriately, Lineage, and it's set to premiere as part of NYCB's fall season.
Liang's association with the troupe began 30 years ago, when he moved from Marin County, California to New York to study at the NYCB-affiliated School of American Ballet. He progressed swiftly: After four years he joined the company, and he became a soloist five years into his tenure. "I was in the first generation of SAB students that opened the dormitory here," he recalls. "We were the test guinea pigs for the cafeteria."
There is a strong tradition of NYCB dancers crafting works for the troupe -- the current fall season features multiple pieces by current or former company members, including Lauren Lovette and Justin Peck. However, unlike the others, Liang ventured far from NYCB and the classical dance world before discovering he wanted to choreograph.
While at NYCB, Liang was a versatile and dynamic NYCB soloist. Christopher Wheeldon, a colleague and contemporary, created many early roles for him. Yet barely into his mid-twenties, Liang was already considering other avenues. "I wanted to experience as much as possible," he explains.
So when director-choreographer Ann Reinking invited him to audition for the "Percussion 4" sequence in Broadway's Fosse -- which was originally performed by Desmond Richardson and subsequently by several prominent ballet dancers -- Liang took a leap of faith, landed the job and left his longtime artistic home.
Liang stayed in Fosse for about a year until it closed in 2001. He then freelanced as a guest artist in New York as well as Europe, eventually joining the Nederlands Dans Theater, an internationally renowned contemporary company with a style far removed from Broadway or NYCB.
It was during his year-long stint with NDT that he first felt the desire to create his own work. "Before then, I was so tunnel vision on my dancing and my career," he says. "It took a little bit of pushing and egging on from people in Holland for me to give it a try. But I'm glad they did."
Liang returned to New York and NYCB in 2004 as a dancer while simultaneously pursuing choreographic opportunities outside the company. In 2007, he decided he wanted to make the latter his primary focus.
Wheeldon had just co-founded Morphoses, his own high-profile (and ultimately short-lived) troupe that mainly worked in the summer and fall. Liang signed on. "Chris is one of my close friends," he says. "I wanted to be a part of what he was creating. I danced, choreographed and I was a ballet master."
The unusual Morphoses schedule allowed him to pursue other choreographic assignments, and Liang began building an impressive résumé of commissions that now includes the Joffrey, San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and the Bolshoi.
In 2013, he was recruited to become artistic director of BalletMet, a venerable Columbus, Ohio troupe. So he left New York for the Midwest, but with the understanding that he could still choreograph elsewhere.
Last year, Jonathan Stafford and Justin Peck -- members of the transitional team running NYCB as the company sought new leadership -- approached Liang about choreographing a ballet. Since Lineage is having its debut at the troupe's annual Fall Fashion Gala, the assignment involved collaborating with a luminary from that world, so Anna Sui is designing the costumes.
Liang tapped British composer Oliver Davis to write a new score in five movements, and once it was finished, he sent it to Sui. "We discussed our ideas about what it represented to us; we were exactly on the same page," Liang says. "The music sounded very Slavic and sultry. It reminded both of us of folk dance, especially Georgian folk dance."
The association with that former Soviet republic is apt since NYCB founder George Balanchine was of Georgian descent. "I thought it would be a great homage to the master," Liang says. "I tried to do as much research as I could and find opportunities for the choreography to give off that fragrance. And in her designs, Anna tried to find just enough balance where it's still modern but includes that essence."
Liang is experiencing echoes of his past as he returns to the institution that shaped his artistic sensibility. "It's so familiar, yet I've taken so much distance from it," he says. "And I see how special it is that this institution is continuing to move forward," referencing its February appointment of two new artistic leaders. "I'm coming in at a time of a lot of possibility."
Lineage will be performed by NYCB September 26-28; October 2, 6 and 13, as well as three times next May. Visit nycballet.com for additional details.
Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages.
Top image: Edwaard Liang in rehearsal for Lineage at New York City Ballet. Photo by Erin Baiano.