Note: Since this article was published, Joaquin De Luz and Stephen Hanna have been promoted to principal dancers.
They've traveled different roads. Some have made detours, and some have stayed the course. But Joaquin De Luz, Stephen Hanna, and Edwaard Liang have all arrived at the same spot: they're New York City Ballet's newest crop of soloists. And as a group, they're giving the Company's male ranks excitement, vigor, and artistry. Looking at the paths that brought these three young dancers to the New York State Theater shows just how varied‹and rewarding‹a career in dance can be.
Joaquin De Luz
A native of Madrid, Joaquin De Luz is a newcomer to New York City Ballet, but not to New York City, and not to Lincoln Center. Since 1997, he has been dancing just across the plaza, with American Ballet Theatre. Known for his elegant style and supreme technique, Mr. De Luz made the move to NYCB last July: "I couldn't be happier, and I'm learning quite a bit."
As a young boy in Spain, Mr. De Luz started out not in ballet, but in bullfighting school. "My family is into it. My grandfather was a local legend," he says. "I gave it try, but the bulls started to get a little big for me."
After seeing a video of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Mr. De Luz was inspired to take up ballet. He studied at the Victor Ullate School in Madrid, and after winning several competitions, he made his way to ABT, where he became a soloist in 1998.
His transition to New York City Ballet has required a great deal of time in the studio, during which he has been learning the Company's repertory and its style. "Ever since I've watched the Company, I've studied how the dancers move‹it's a certain style," he says.
"I'm really learning from watching my colleagues‹I've learned a little bit from everybody," he continues. "I love Damian Woetzel's dancing. Jock Soto's partnering is so unbelievable."
But an earlier inspiration comes from former NYCB principal dancer Edward Villella. "I never saw him live. But even on tape, he's so powerful. There's testosterone on stage."
Since joining the Company, Mr. De Luz has danced many roles, including Frantz in the full-length Coppélia, and one of his favorites, Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream. "It's incredibly musical and masculine at the same time," he says of this role.
But these days, he's spending his time absorbing hours' worth of choreography that's new to him. It's a state of affairs that he adores: "I like to be like a sponge. You never stop learning."
Of the three new soloists, Stephen Hanna is the one who worked his way slowly and steadily up the ranks. In 1992, at just 12 years old, he left his home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to live in a dormitory and study at the School of American Ballet. The early separation from his family was difficult, but it put him in the right place.
One day in 1997, the Co-Chairman of the Faculty at SAB, Kay Mazzo, asked to speak with him. He remembers being nervous: "I had missed a few classes, and I thought I was going to be yelled at," he says. Instead, he was invited to become an apprentice with the Company, and later that year, he joined the corps de ballet.
Once at NYCB, Mr. Hanna developed a large and varied repertory, and he landed a principal role in Albert Evans' 2002 Diamond Project ballet, Haiku. Soon he was dancing so much and so frequently that he began to fret over when (and if) he would be promoted to soloist. "I'd come off stage, and I'd wonder if I was going to be promoted," he says. "But then I just stopped thinking about it, and it happened."
He was elevated to soloist last February, along with Ashley Bouder and Megan Fairchild. He almost didn't come into the theater that day. "I was off. But there was a Company meeting, so luckily, I came in," he recalls with a smile.
Mr. Hanna has made it a goal to "bring to the stage a strong sense of masculine dancing and partnering." Which makes it understandable that he loves the Diamonds pas de deux in Jewels. "It's just exactly what you think of when you think of a male ballet dancer on stage. I always loved watching it," he says.
On his dance card this season could be Stars and Stripes, another of his favorites. "It shows a lot of personality and it's fun. The audience loves it."
If there is an advantage to being around the Company for so long, it's all in the artistry. "Being here for this many years, I hope I've absorbed the aesthetic," he says. But it has taken a healthy dose of mental toughness: "You have to be strong."
Born in Taipei, Taiwan, and raised in Northern California, Edwaard Liang is a comeback kid‹of sorts. In 1998, after dancing with the Company for five years, he was made a soloist and performed as such until 2001.
At that time, however, he was given an opportunity that he couldn't pass up: a leading role in the Broadway show Fosse. The contract was lucrative, but the real draw was the chance to expand his career stylistically. "You want to take advantage of every experience, especially since dancers really don't get to dance for that long," he says.
When his Fosse run was up, he took a break, then skipped off to Europe where he joined the Nederlands Dans Theater and guested with the Norwegian National Ballet. Upon returning to the States, he danced with the contemporary ballet company Complexions, directed by Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson.
But classicism has a strong pull, and soon, Mr. Liang found himself asking for his old job back. "I missed dancing at the State Theater. I missed dancing Balanchine. I missed classical ballet," he says.
And as much as he enjoyed taking advantage of new challenges, he also realized that classical ballet waits for no man. "You want to do it when you're at your peak," says Mr. Liang.
Since returning to the Company in spring 2004, he has found his circuitous path has indeed broadened his horizons. "When NYCB is all you grow up with, you don't really know what you have," says the dancer, who joined New York City Ballet at age 16. "By leaving, I gained a different perspective. I'm so much more grateful for what we have here."
He's especially grateful for the variety in the repertory. "We're spoiled. We get a little bit of everything," he says happily.
Indeed, the ballets he's excited to dance this winter make up a fairly eclectic bunch. He's looking forward to Jerome Robbins's The Four Seasons and George Balanchine's Cortège Hongrois. He's pleased to be a part of Christopher Wheeldon's new work, and to be returning to a role he originated in Mr. Wheeldon's Polyphonia.
If that's what it means to be spoiled, then let's hope it continues.
Pia Catton is the dance critic for The New York Sun.