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In conversation: Edwaard Liang and John Kuijper discuss ‘Age of Innocence’

When it comes to Age of Innocence, for Edwaard Liang, it’s personal.

The ballet, which he first choreographed in 2008 on Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, grew out of his interest in Jane Austen, his passion for the music (Thomas Newman and Philip Glass) and his curiosity about women’s roles in the 19th century. But it also represents a unique time in his life.

To provide deeper insight into Age of Innocence, Liang, Artistic Director for BalletMet, sat down with his partner, John Kuijper, to answer a few questions. Their conversation is below.

See Age of Innocence in Inspired, BalletMet’s triple-bill collaboration with Cincinnati Ballet, March 11-13 at the Ohio Theatre before it travels to Cincinnati’s Aronoff Center, March 18-19.

John Kuijper: I’m kind of curious: What gave you the idea for this triple bill coming up? The McIntyre, Liang, Balanchine arrangement—all three. Why these three? Why together, and why call it Inspired?

Edwaard Liang: Victoria Morgan [Artistic Director for Cincinnati Ballet] had the idea about Trey McIntyre’s Wild Sweet Love. I didn’t know what she was going to program. What I did know was that this collaboration is really incredible for both communities. It’s really good for the company. It’s great for my dancers. It’s always great for artists to have exchanges. These dancers get to build even more camaraderie with dancers they’re not as familiar with. The energy in the studio is just fun. We feel like a huge company. Age of Innocence, the reason why I programmed this is I think the company is ready for this ballet. This ballet is hard, and it’s not only challenging physically, but it’s challenging emotionally.

JK: So it’s emotionally challenging, not just technically challenging?

EL: It’s emotionally challenging, it’s technically challenging, and it’s very specific in its movement and its intention. I don’t think it’s that the dancers weren’t ready in the past, but I’m now more ready to show something that is very sensitive to me. This piece is very personal and intimate, and I feel ready to show this piece to where I live and our home base. It’s just more personal.

JK: That makes sense. The story of this ballet is, in a way, kind of a definitive ballet of yours, and now you’re bringing it home to Columbus. That must be a sensitive moment for you because you’re putting yourself out there.

EL: Well, I’m definitely very proud of this work. I hope that some day I’ll be able to do even more, better works. But this was one of my first big ballets. And this work is very personal to me. It was a very interesting time [when I choreographed it], even for Joffrey Ballet. Ashley Wheater just took over the company. I was his first big commission, so the pressure was on. It was scary for a young choreographer. At that time, I’d done probably six ballets, but this one was very special to me because of just the process of it. At that time, I had a lot more free time to be able to investigate and research ballets than I do now, but it was the time for me to program this ballet. I’m just very proud of how the company has been able to not only dance this ballet beautifully but make it their own. That’s exactly what I wanted from them.

JK: It seems like it’s a transformative ballet for you and also for the dancers in every company that’s put it on. You see something fresh.

EL: What’s incredible about ballet and dancing ballets is that it’s the artists that come out and the artists on stage that bring it to life. It’s almost like it’s a brand new ballet every time that it goes to a different company. The way that the BalletMet dancers are investing themselves into it—I don’t think any choreographer or artistic director could ask for anything more. It’s very humbling to see how much emotional and physical investment they put into it.

JK: It sounds like you’re delighted in the fact that these dancers breathed this new life into it. They make something a little unexpected or nuanced in a way of this ballet that you know so well. They’re bringing something out of it in a way or something in themselves comes out of it through dancing this ballet that is super fresh to you.

EL: I am delighted, and I am surprised. I don’t know if it comes from insecurity or what it is, but I’m always surprised when people and dancers want to dance my ballets, and they enjoy it and that they’re inspired by it. This is the whole premise of this program. Inspired is about multiple inspirations, whether it’s the music, the steps, the story, whether it’s just the feeling of being in the Ohio Theatre. The [two] companies are able to expand and do ballets that are a little more out of reach for companies that are our size. It’s very aspirational. I’m glad that this program is called Inspired because I think that hopefully the audience feels touched and moved and inspired. That really is the mission and the intention of what BalletMet wants to do.

JK: Your interest in Jane Austen, picking up Jane Austen, connecting some of the ideas that she represents in her novels and the concept of arranged marriages, family expectations in this time of massive class shifting from this old aristocracy to a new bourgeoisie—can you talk about when you picked up reading Jane Austen?

EL: I actually read Pride and Prejudice in high school. And then around 2007-2008 I started reading Emma, and I kind of got intrigued by Jane Austen again, and that year I was travelling a lot for different projects, and I had a lot of time on airplanes and in hotels. I was reading a lot and watching different videos and reading little bits about quantum physics. I was very intrigued by energy and time and space. My mind just started going where I was really inspired by some of the theaters I was visiting. I wondered what stories they told. I started thinking about the relationships and the energy and the time that was back then. That’s why personally I’m extremely interested in arranged marriages because my parents were an arranged marriage. I have personal feelings about it, and I kind of wanted to explore the ideas with that. It definitely triggers something in me.

JK: Of course because it’s directly affected your very being in a way that many of us can’t say. There’s a deep connection to who you are. Can you talk about the process of choreographing this work? How did you start working with it? My guess is you started with the music.

EL: I ran into this piece of music when I saw the movie “Little Children.” It was the film score, and it was the end credits. We love to sit after a movie, whenever we do get a chance to see a movie, we love to take it in for a second. Right at the end of that film I listened to this piece of music, and I was like oh my gosh, what is this? So I quickly went home, and I downloaded it. I listened to it. It is such a mixture of excitement, thrill and heart and soul. Pieces of music for choreographers are rare to come by. And I had this piece of music, and then I just started, and I worked with a friend of mine that became a Julliard teacher of music… We ended up living in the same building, and so I called up my friend, and I started assembling with this piece, it’s called “End Title” by Thomas Newman, so I started assembling different pieces of music by Philip Glass. And that’s kind of how it started. And then by listening to the music and at the same time reading Jane Austen and thinking about quantum physics and energy and time and space and just the meaning of the times. That’s why it was so special to me because it was so specific to that time. And you know I really believe in synchronicity. It really did start with the music.

JK: You talked a little about chaos and disorder and order and synchronicity—why did Pride and Prejudice strike you the way it did strike you?

EL: It made me feel something that I think choreographers and artists yearn for. There’s this beautiful ache that every artist is striving for, whether they’re choreographing something or composing something or dancing their own interpretation of a ballet, there’s this feeling and ache that artists yearn for. I was travelling so much, and I felt like I was getting more disconnected from myself. I was yearning to feel something that was about humanity and heart, and this story just really resonated with me because it was personal.

JK: Talk about the end and the shift at the end of this piece.

EL: All I could think of was that it’s a culmination. Everything means nothing and nothing means everything. How do I explain that? In Western culture, emptiness has a negative connotation, and it’s not. Nothing is the possibility of everything.

JK: Being empty is a positive value.

EL: Exactly. That’s what was coming through the music to me.