For the eighth year, choreography and couture will be the theme of New York City Ballet’s Fall Gala, unfurling Thursday, September 26. But if there was an unofficial theme for the evening’s two world premiere ballets, it would be a celebration of NYCB dancers who became choreographers.
Principal Dancer Lauren Lovette, who made her choreographic debut with the Company at the 2016 Fall Gala, will present her third ballet for NYCB. And former NYCB Soloist Edwaard Liang, the Artistic Director of Ohio’s BalletMet and a prolific, internationally acclaimed choreographer, will create his first work for the company he danced with for more than 11 years.
What do these two homegrown choreographers have in store for their audiences?
Lauren Lovette offers a simple explanation for her choice of Fire Ritual, Chinese composer Tan Dun’s searing 2018 violin concerto, for her new ballet. “I was captured by that alarming beginning,” she says of the hair-raising sounds that greet listeners. “You listen to a lot of music when you’re trying to come up with an idea, and it can get monotonous. Fire Ritual startled me awake.”
With long silences, hairpin mood swings, and primordial-sounding chants, Dun’s complex concerto is a choreographic Everest. “It sort of terrified me, and I thought if this scares me half to death, it’s probably the right thing,” says Lovette, who upped the stakes by making this her biggest ballet to date with 25 dancers. (They’ll wear timeless, gender-neutral costumes designed by Zac Posen.)
After three years of professional dancemaking, including commissions from the ABT Studio Company and the Vail Dance Festival among others, Lovette views choreography as a genuine passion. That realization dawned with Not Our Fate, her second work for NYCB. “That piece came from my gut. I was really true to myself making it. And that’s when I fell in love with choreography completely,” she says.
Asked about balancing choreography with a flourishing full-time ballet career, Lovette laughs. “Oh, I’m still learning.” Nearly all her downtime from the Company goes into dancemaking endeavors, including a recent choreography fellowship at NYU’s Center for Ballet and the Arts. “You need space and time and rest to be creative,” she says. “But you need to be training and in class to keep your technique up. You can’t step away entirely for three weeks and expect to come back and do Aurora. It’s a challenge to do both, but a rewarding one.”
Edwaard Liang, who was born in Taipei, Taiwan and raised in Northern California, joined NYCB in 1993 as a freshly minted graduate of the School of American Ballet. But the dancer known for his elegant line and quiet intensity might never have become a choreographer had he not taken a break from the Company between 2001 and 2004. After a year on Broadway dancing a leading role in the musical Fosse, he landed at Nederlands Dans Theater, a company that “really pushed us to be collaborative and creative,” he says, calling from his BalletMet office in Columbus, Ohio.
On a dare, Liang created a pas de deux in four days. “I never thought of myself as a choreographer, ever,” he recalls with a laugh. “But I was fascinated by the process and got bit by the bug.”
He continued to choreograph after rejoining NYCB, and his Distant Cries, a pas de deux for Wendy Whelan and Peter Boal created for Peter Boal and Company in 2005, entered the NYCB repertory later that year and has since been performed by the Bolshoi Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, and BalletMet. By the time he retired from dancing in 2009, commissions were rolling in. Over the past decade Liang has created ballets for more than a dozen companies including the Joffrey Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet.
“I’m lucky that I have the interest in doing ballets that are very contemporary and ballets that are ballets,” he says of his wide-ranging commissions that include abstract neoclassical works, full-length story ballets, and more experimental pieces like Airavata, a BalletMet piece performed with water raining onto the stage.
Liang grows his ballets from a concept and a score, a process he followed for his new work. With the idea of creating an homage to NYCB founder George Balanchine and his Georgian roots, he chose new music by English composer Oliver Davis, who he has worked with on three previous ballets. The piece springs from Georgian folk dance but in an abstract, deconstructed way. “The music Oliver composed reminded me of folk dancing, the feel and perfume of it,” he says.
As inspiration for the costumes, Liang exchanged Georgian wood cuts and fabric patterns with fashion designer Anna Sui.
“This commission is like a homecoming for me,” Liang says happily. “I never got to work with Balanchine personally, but I was lucky enough to dance his ballets with his company. It all started for me at City Ballet.”
Terry Trucco writes frequently on the arts and travel.