Tag Archives: Edwaard Liang

BalletMet’s New ‘Giselle,’ a Fresh Restaging of a Story Ballet Classic


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(Center) BalletMet’s Jessica Brown in “Giselle.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.


By Steve Sucato

With the kind of success artistic director Edwaard Liang has had in raising BalletMet’s stature in the dance world, there can be little doubt that other ballet organizations that have been in search of new leadership have come courting him. Luckily for Columbus-area audiences, Liang feels he’s found a home at BalletMet and in Columbus and recently signed a 5-year contract extension.

“Honestly, I got some phone calls, but I feel I have turned a corner personally here,” says Liang.  “I have a great quality of life in Columbus with my partner and I get to balance my career as an artistic director with my career as a choreographer.”

Liang also says while the company has made great strides towards achieving his vision for it, there is still more work to be done.  One area of that vision he has been systematically working on in the past 4-years, is replacing the company’s existing repertory of story ballet classics with brand new productions. Those have included a new production of Cinderella in 2015, Sleeping Beauty in 2016, and in 2017, bringing in his production of Romeo and Juliet originally created for Tulsa Ballet in 2012.  Now joining that list is the world-premiere of Liang’s new production of Giselle, February 9-17 at the Jo Ann Davidson Theatre in downtown Columbus’ Vern Riffe Center.

As with the other story ballet classics Liang has redone, for the most part this new Giselle will maintain its traditional roots. The romantic ballet in two acts set to music by Adolphe Adam, was first performed in Paris in 1841 and tells the story of young peasant girl Giselle who dies of a broken heart after discovering her lover Albrecht is betrothed to another. Afterwards she is summoned from her grave by a group of supernatural women known as “Wilis,” who all have also died of broken hearts and who take revenge on men by dancing them to death. They intend to do the same with Albrecht but Giselle’s eternal love for him eventually frees him from their grasp.

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BalletMet’s Karen Wing in “Giselle.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Perhaps the most famous ballet whose libretto came courtesy of a dance citric, Frenchman Théophile Gautier, the popular ballet is a staple in the repertoire of most every ballet company in the world. It was originally choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, although most present day versions of the ballet derive their choreography from the 19th and early 20th century revivals by Marius Petipa.

While Liang as choreographer is best known for his contemporary ballets, he says he chose not to bring that movement style into his new productions of classic story ballets. Instead, he has gone the path of reusing traditional choreography while adding new choreography and other elements to them to fit his vision for them.

“What I like about BalletMet is we run the gambit. Everything like [Ohad Naharin’s contemporary dance work] Minus 16 to something classical [like Sleeping Beauty],” says Liang. “I feel it is part of my job to have a stable of classic story ballet war horses to go along with our contemporary ballet works.”

So what is different about this Giselle production?

“Where we have gone differently is not so much in the storytelling, but I wanted to have more dancing for the men because the ballet traditionally is so female dominated and so hard for them,” says Liang.

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BalletMet’s Kristie Latham in “Giselle.” Photo by Jenifer Zmuda.

What will be noticeably different will be the ballet’s look.  While it takes place during the same time period of the story, the production’s new deconstructed and minimalist sets “give it a painterly look that is not at all traditional,” says Liang.  Add to that the ballet’s new puritan-like costumes, and you have a production that while is in many ways traditional, has a more modern feel to it.

Another more subtle change comes in the way Liang and BalletMet’s artistic staff are approaching coaching the dancers. “The fine tuning I’m doing is trying to have it so the dancers do less ‘ballet acting’ and more of what you would consider ‘theater acting’,” he says.

That will manifest itself most noticeably in the portrayals of the ballet’s lead characters such as Giselle.

“I want the staging to be clear and the same for each of the Giselle’s but there has to be some flexibility or else the dancers are not going to feel free enough to find themselves in the role,” says Liang. “That’s where I see a lot of Giselle [portrayals] become ‘shticky’; the choreography and the staging is so old world that, while beautiful, may not be for everyone.”

One of three dancers in three different casts to dance the leading role of Giselle along with Caitlin Valentine-Ellis (Feb. 9 & 17) and Grace-Anne Powers (Feb. 10 & 16), will be San Francisco-native and third-year company member, Carly Wheaton (Feb. 11 & 15). Performing her first leading role in a story ballet classic, Wheaton says of the character and her approach to playing her: “in act one Giselle is pure and innocent and has never really felt [romantic] love which devastates her when she gets her heartbroken by Albrecht.  In act two, that heartache is carried over but she becomes a solemn, ethereal being.”

The 24-year-old also says while the choreography for her character’s movements in say the ballet’s famous “Mad scene” is highly structured, she has the freedom in some ways to personalize her portrayal of Giselle.

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BalletMet’s Lisset Santander in “Giselle.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Dancing the role of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis along with Lisset Santander (Feb. 10 & 16) and Jessica Brown (Feb. 11 & 15), will be BalletMet newcomer Madeline Skelly (Feb. 9 & 17). It’s a role she danced as a member of Houston Ballet.

“A lot of people see Myrtha as a man-hater and I get that because she does kill them,” says Skelly. “Revenge is a part of it, but she does see Giselle’s love for Albrecht and how she is standing up for him and trying to protect him.” That leads, she says, to a moment in the ballet where those feelings of love and forgiveness almost crack her tough façade, but she quickly suppresses those feelings.

Skelly says dancing the role of Myrtha is also physically challenging for her but not in the way most would think. While the rigor and pace of the role’s full-on dancing in the ballet’s second act is hard, Skelly says even more challenging is standing still in a ballet position known as B+ for long periods of time after she has been dancing. “It’s excruciatingly painful.”

The 25-year old Orlando-native in her first year with BalletMet joined the company in August with her husband and Columbus-native William Newton who trained at New Albany Ballet Company.  Newton is one of three dancers performing the lead role of Albrecht, February 10 & 16. Miguel Anaya (Feb. 9 & 17) and Romel Frometa (Feb. 11 & 15) will also perform the role in other casts.

While perhaps not scenically lavish compared to other Giselle productions because of budget constraints, having seen the company in rehearsals of it, the 2-hour ballet has got it where it counts — Great storytelling, world-class dancing and an updated look that make it worth reserving a ticket for.

BalletMet performs Giselle:

Friday, 2/9 8:00 pm
Saturday, 2/10 8:00 pm
Sunday, 2/11 2:00 pm
Thursday, 2/15 7:30 pm
Friday, 2/16 8:00 pm
Saturday, 2/17 8:00 pm

At the Jo Ann Davidson Theatre in the Vern Riffe Center, 77 S. High Street, Columbus. Tickets are $29-74 and are available at balletmet.org, ticketmaster.com or by calling 614.469.0939

Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.

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Benz a Consummate Juliet in BalletMet’s Superb ‘Romeo and Juliet’


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BalletMet’s David Ward and Adrienne Benz in Edwaard Liang’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

BalletMet with Columbus Symphony Orchestra – Romeo and Juliet
Ohio Theatre
Columbus, Ohio

April 28-30, 2017 

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Since taking over BalletMet’s artistic leadership in 2010, Edwaard Liang has molded the company into more of a contemporary ballet powerhouse with ballets by himself, Christopher Wheeldon, Gustavo Ramirez Sansano, Ma Cong and others. With the Columbus premiere of his Romeo and Juliet, April 28-30 at the Ohio Theatre however, Liang asserted BalletMet’s might in classical story ballets as well with a next-level production usually reserved for ballet companies twice its size.

Originally created on Tulsa Ballet in 2012, the 3-act production had opera house-style sets and costumes by David Walker to go with the rich playing of Sergei Prokofiev’s iconic score for the ballet by the Columbus Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Stafford Wilson and some of the best classical dancing I’ve seen from the company. In the ballet’s final performance on April 30 however, one light shone above the rest, that of retiring company star Adrienne Benz whose moving performance as Juliet stands with any given anywhere in recent years.

True to Shakespeare’s play and the storyline structure found in most high-level ballet productions of Romeo and Juliet, Liang’s adaptation moved briskly in choreography that was engaging and descriptive. The ballet’s scenes not only told the star-crossed lovers’ familiar story, but captured nicely the atmosphere of Shakespeare’s fictional Verona, Italy setting and its colorful renaissance-era inhabitants.

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(L-R) BalletMet’s Andres Estevez, David Ward and Kohhei Kuwana in Edwaard Liang’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

In typical fashion, Act I introduced us to the feuding Capulet and Montague families including male protagonist Romeo (David Ward), his friend Mercutio (Andres Estevez) and his cousin Benvolio (Kohhei Kuwana) as well as to Juliet’s cousin and antagonist Tybalt, portrayed with icy malice by first-year company member Austin Moholt-Siebert.

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(L-R) BalletMets’ Sarah Wolf, Karen Wing and Kristie Latham in Edwaard Liang’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Frivolity, swordplay and the flirtations of young men and women made for a vibrant opening scene. Most interesting were Liang’s use of three gruff but sexy harlots danced by Kristie Latham, Karen Wing and Sarah Wolf who, when they weren’t pushing around the villagers, fawned over Romeo and his compatriots and even engaged in some of the sword fighting.

Later in the Act, the ballet shifted scenes to Juliet’s bedroom were we get our first glimpse of Benz as Juliet being playful with her nurse and confident (Leigh Lijoi) while making preparations for that evening’s masked ball. Benz appeared to have leapt from the pages of Shakespeare’s play. Her youthful exuberance and joy made you fall in love with her character instantly and her acting skills and technical prowess were stunning.

As in most Romeo and Juliet ballets, the ball was a lavish affair with the aforementioned costumes and sets to match. The trio of Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio looking to crash the ball were a bit like the three musketeers in their cocky, cavalier attitudes toward those arriving for the ball. Ward as Romeo appeared straight out of central casting. His princely looks and adroit dancing seemed to charm the audience almost as much as it did Juliet in the scene which played out as most do with the two meeting and falling for each other instantly and Romeo and cohorts clashing with Tybalt and Juliet’s would-be suitor Paris, danced with nobility by BalletMet dancer Attila Bongar who was also making his final appearance with the company.

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BalletMet’s David Ward and Adrienne Benz in Edwaard Liang’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

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BalletMet’s David Ward and Adrienne Benz in Edwaard Liang’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

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BalletMet’s David Ward and Adrienne Benz in Edwaard Liang’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Bathed in golden light and dreamlike, the famous “balcony scene” that followed to end Act I dripped with romance which Benz and Ward let wash over them as the two lovers who then got drunk on each other’s company.  Within this beautiful setting Liang choreographed a beauty of a pas de deux that contained a wellspring of fabulous lifts and carries to go with the character’s unbridled joy which Benz and Ward captured to perfection in their exquisite dancing of it.

Act II opened with us back in the village’s marketplace with the requisite frolicking and celebrations. Wing, as the village’s most brazen harlot, once again made her presence felt strutting about with the kind of aggressiveness she displayed in the lead role of Carmen in Sansano’s Carmen.maquia in 2016. The act continued with Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio playfully teasing Juliet’s nurse who came to marketplace to deliver a note to Romeo from Juliet about meeting in secret with Friar Lawrence (David Spialter) to wed.  It was another charming scene in a ballet full of them that provided a wonderful counterpoint to the ballet’s drama and tragedy.

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(Center) BalletMet’s Karen Wing in Edwaard Liang’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

As with any great tragedy, happiness comes at a cost and in one of the ballet’s most climactic moments Estevez as Mercutio, who was also making his final appearance with BalletMet, delivered a wonderfully acted and danced performance where he was both hero and jester battling and ultimately perishing at the hands of Tybalt in a swordfight. For his part, Moholt-Siebert as Tybalt nearly stole the scene with a “Joffrey Baratheon” from Game of Thrones kind of contemptibility.

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(Center) BalletMet’s Austin Moholt-Siebert and David Ward in Edwaard Liang’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

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(Center) BalletMet’s Carly Wheaton and Austin Moholt-Siebert in Edwaard Liang’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

The act then ended with Romeo taking revenge on Tybalt over Mercutio’s death in an unconscious fit of rage, and then guilt, as Lady Capulet (Carly Wheaton) crazed and bereft, stormed the stage and whipped her headdress into the wings in a somewhat over-the-top reaction to Tybalt’s death; suggesting perhaps there relationship was much more than just aunt and nephew.

The ballet’s third act continued the familiar tale with Romeo and Juliet waking in Juliet’s bedroom after assumingly consummating their secret marriage with Romeo still haunted by Mercutio and Tybalt’s deaths and Juliet not wanting Romeo to go. The pair engaged in another marvelously-crafted and passionate pas de deux.  Later in the scene, after Romeo’s departure, Juliet’s parents forced the issue of her marriage to Paris and Benz showed more of her brilliance conveying in her every step, gesture and heartbreaking tear, the very essence of Shakespeare’s words on the young heroine’s torn state of emotion.

After seeking solace from Friar Lawrence who gave her a potion to fake her own death, Juliet returned to her bedroom where she was visited by the ghosts of Mercutio, as sort of an angel one shoulder telling her not to take the potion, and Tybalt, the devil on her other shoulder urging to take it, which she does.

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BalletMet’s David Ward and Adrienne Benz in Edwaard Liang’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

The ballet’s final scene at the Capulet family tomb brought the tragic tale to its inevitable conclusion as Romeo and Paris faced off in a knife fight at the alter Juliet’s seemingly lifeless body lay with Romeo the lone survivor. Liang then wrapped up the story and the lover’s fates with a rarely used ending in U.S. productions where Romeo sees Juliet wake up from her fake-death coma seconds before he succumbs to the very real poison he just drank to be with her in the afterlife. What must he be thinking in that brief moment? Ward gave us both elation and resignation in seconds it took for that reunion to play out. Benz then true to her character’s grief and determination to forever be with Romeo grabbed Paris’ knife and ended her own life.

A triumph by most any standard of measure, BalletMet’s Romeo and Juliet with its brisk pacing, easy-to-follow story progression and relatable characters would surely resonate with even the most neophyte dance goer. Add to that finely constructed, world-class choreography, perhaps the best ballet score ever written played with heart by the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, rich looking sets and costumes and great dancing led by the spellbinding performances of Benz and Ward, and even the most persnickety of balletomanes would have a hard time resisting the production’s allure.

Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.

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The Skinny on Second Companies: Benefits, Logistics and Costs


By Steve Sucato

Second companies are nothing new in dance. Some, like Ailey II and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s HS2, have been around for decades while others like Joffrey II have long gone by the wayside. In recent years, however, more and more dance organizations are seeing the value of adding a second unit to bolster their dancer ranks as well as provide an invaluable learning experience for talented young dancers to bridge the gap between student and professional.

Like their professional counterparts, second companies can come in a variety of shapes and sizes with varying goals and missions. To take a closer look at what makes a second company tick, five dance organizations with old and new second companies — BalletMet, Boston Ballet, Houston Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and Kansas City Ballet — weighed in about the benefits, costs, logistics, and concerns involved with starting and maintaining one.

“One thing we have to understand is that what one company calls a second company, another calls something else,” says Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen. “San Francisco Ballet apprentices are like our second company [Boston Ballet II] and our trainees are like Houston Ballet’s second company. It’s a little confusing.”

Whatever the moniker, “second company,” “studio company,” or some other variation, dance organizations give several common reasons for having one.

Education Through Performance

One main reason to build a second performing troupe is to provide talented young dancers, not quite ready for a main company contract, a place to hone their stagecraft and learn what it is like to be a professional dancer. Typically those dancers fall between the ages of 18 and 22. Some can be as young as 16, or as old as 24 if joining from a college dance program.

“The most important thing in bringing out greatness in a dancer is to put them on stage and put them on stage often,” says Hubbard Street 2 (HS2) director Terence Marling. “This … alters a person’s dancing more than anything that happens in the studio.”

In most second companies dancers augment the main company in corps de ballet roles. “A long time ago ballet companies hired inexperienced young dancers and after a few years they became well-functioning company members,” says Nissinen. “Today financial resources are so tight that nobody can afford to do that anymore, not even in Europe. So everybody needs dancers who are ready to dance. When they come from a school, they naturally don’t have professional experience and the likelihood they will survive in a company is less. If they go through a second company program, whether it is one year or two, they actually get all that experience and then when they join the company, they excel versus just get in.”

Kansas City Ballet artistic director Devon Carney, whose career began in the late 1970s as a member of Boston Ballet II (BBII), knows what being in a second company can mean to a young dancer. “It’s an invaluable internship to work in a professional company environment for a young dancer who has the ability but doesn’t have the experience yet,” says Carney.

Houston Ballet II (HB II) fields one of the largest and most successful second-company programs in the country, giving its 12 to 16 dancers from all over the globe the opportunity perform locally, regionally and nationally. They have even toured internationally to Canada, China, Hungary, Mexico and Switzerland. Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch says he patterned the program after The Dancers Company, Australian Ballet’s second troupe, which his mother created when she was artistic director.  “I gained so much both as a dancer and choreographer through that company that I wanted to have the same for us in Houston.”

Dance organizations with second company dancers performing main company corps roles also benefit because it gives more opportunities for main company dancers to do soloist and principal roles says Carney. This “trickle up” effect is good for the entire company, allowing more dancers more opportunities to dance better roles and the added dancers can also allow the main company to do larger ballets.

In the case of HS2, which is essentially a second professional troupe with its own touring schedule, their dancers can be called up to the main company when needed, much like a farm club to a Major League Baseball team or the NBA’s D-league.

While in practice second company dancers are a source of cheap labor, all those I spoke to were adamant they not be treated as such, especially to the detriment of their careers. To that end, all those artistic directors I talked to limit the time a dancer can spend in their organization’s second company to one to two years. That time limit benefits both the dancer and the organization.

After one to three years, if a director will not offer a second company dancer a main company contract, “It is important to push them out of the nest,” says BalletMet artistic director Edwaard Liang. “We don’t want to them to feel complacent in a company they cannot stay in forever. It is crucial around age 21 or 22 that they go out and find a job.”

An additional benefit of the dancer turnover for the organization is it allows opportunities for other talented young dancers looking to join the second company.

Some organizations like BalletMet build in another safeguard against the unfair use of their second company dancers. If they are used in a main company leading role more than once, they automatically receive a first-year main company dancer contract.

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A former dancer turned writer/critic living in Ohio, Steve Sucato studied ballet and modern dance at the Erie Civic Ballet (Erie, Pa.) and at Pennsylvania State University. He has performed numerous contemporary and classical works sharing the stage with noted dancers Robert LaFosse, Antonia Franceschi, Joseph Duell, Sandra Brown, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. His writing credits include articles and reviews on dance and the arts for The Plain Dealer(Cleveland, Ohio), The Buffalo News, Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.), Pittsburgh City Paper as well as magazines Pointe,Dance Studio Life, Dance Magazine, Dance International, Dance Teacher, Stage Directions, Dance Retailer News,Dancer and webzines Balletco, DanceTabs, Ballet-Dance Magazine/Critical Dance, and Exploredance.com, where he is currently associate editor. Steve is a chairman emeritus of the Dance Critics Association, an international association of dance journalists.  

Photos:
First image: Hubbard Street 2 Dancers Jade Hooper, left, and Elliot Hammans; photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.
Second image: Boston Ballet II’s Desean Taber and Boston Ballet’s Albert Gordon in Viktor Plotnikov’s Colloquial Dreams; photo by Liza Voll, courtesy of Boston Ballet.

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