Q&A: Choreographer Edwaard Liang on New SDT Ballet

After dancing for many years for the New York City Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theatre, Edwaard Liang turned to choreography and quickly created acclaimed works for ballet companies around the world including the Bolshoi Ballet, Joffrey Ballet andKirov Ballet. The very-much-in-demand Chinese-American choreographer is currently working on his third commission for the Singapore Dance Theatre, to be performed as part of the company’s 25-year anniversary gala from May 31-Jun 1, his fourth time working with the company. He talked to BLOUIN ARTINFO about this new piece, as well as discussing his upcoming job as artistic director of BalletMet Columbus, and the challenges dance companies currently face.

Tell us about the new ballet you’re currently creating, “Opus 25”?

It’s actually quite challenging, because Janek (Schergen, the artistic director of the Singapore Dance Theatre) requested a 15-minute ballet, which I’ve never done before, and he wanted all 32 dancers on stage. The piece is a semi kind of montage that shows some sort of arc still with solos and pas de deux, but it’s really about showcasing the dancers as well as showcasing the range of works that the Singapore Dance Theatre does. That’s why the ballet starts with a bang, and the music by Michael Torke is very powerful with a full orchestra. You will see in terms of the language of the choreography it ranges back and forth from contemporary ballet, to ballet, and to modern.

What brings you back to the SDT for the fourth time?

Not only do I love their dancers, but as a choreographer you have only a certain amount of time in the year that you can travel around to create a new ballet, but you do want to choose companies where you go back on a constant basis to see the dancers growing and reap the benefits of the work you’ve done. That’s very rewarding. I hate watching my own ballets, but I love the creative process.

What is the strength of this company and its dancers?

Their desire to do new work. And their desire to be better — not only as dancers but as an organization. They have different ranges of levels and abilities, but they don’t come with any ego, they come and they work, they want to work and they’re not afraid of hard work. Their challenge is to balance their strengths, and as a company being able to reach out to the public. It’s something every company is facing right now. Every company has to almost slightly rebrand itself every decade or so to fit into the dance landscape and how dance moves forward. The answer is something I’m trying to figure for my own company as I start with of BalletMet on July 1. This company (SDT) is quite similar to the one I’m taking over in terms of size, though its(SDT’s) budget is significantly less, but it has its own kind of perks because Singapore is behind it and it has the Esplanade. I think the challenge right now for anybody is being able to connect with an audience and use social media to have a new generation of audiences participating.

You’re known for being a technically demanding choreographer. On a range from 1 to 10 where is this ballet, 10 being the hardest?

I would say probably 9 or 10. And the process is difficult because I choreograph fast and it challenges them in terms of my expectations of how quickly they learn, especially with 32 dancers, I’m spitting information left and right and I expect them to remember quickly. We only have 10 days to finish this piece.

What’s the most difficult thing?

It’s very fast paced and quite relentless. Even if it’s only 15-minutes-long there is so much, I’m packing it in, and still editing as well to make sure it’s balanced and not too much for the senses. The movement and choreography is difficult and quite furious, and I’m challenging the dancers to quickly range from contemporary to ballet. A full-length ballet has its own sets of challenges, but it has plusses because you have time to arc and time to tell a story. With 15 minutes it’s a different sort of interpretation. With this ballet, I really don’t think I’m able to tell a story, besides showing some arc for the dancers stylistically and energy wise, especially with the complexity of having all these dancers. Honestly, this is one of the hardest challenges I’ve faced in choreography so far.

What other challenges have you faced before?

Probably the Romeo and Juliette I created last year for the Tulsa Ballet, because it was my first full-length ballet. I had to learn the language of sword fighting and then being able to choreograph working with a stunt coordinator. There was a sheer amount of value of information, not only that I was receiving but that I also wanted to convey.

Looking ahead to your new job, how do you see your first year?

The first year is really about listening and understanding the organization and after that I will be able hopefully to be part of a conversation and make changes. I can’t understand an organization and be fully invested unless I know it inside out. My biggest challenge this first year will be to temper listening and not jumping the gun in terms of wanting to make changes. Every artistic director want to put their stamp onto a company but whatever kind of changes, it takes time and you have to think strategically. It’s like a business, you may want to make a lot of changes, but your need to be strategic and just choose five to start with, and then implement the rest of the changes over time.