In July 2013 he became the Columbus, Ohio, ballet company's fifth artistic director, succeeding Gerard Charles, who is now a ballet master at Joffrey Ballet. Founded in 1978, BalletMet has a rich performance history showcasing a mix of classics (Balanchine and story ballets) along with a range of contemporary works from choreographers such as James Kudelka, Stanton Welch and Doug Varone. The dual role of artistic director as company choreographer, embraced by all of its previous directors, most notably John McFall and David Nixon, was an exciting prospect for Liang in accepting the directorship. “I think that a ballet company that has an artistic director who choreographs sets it apart from others," says Liang. “It has its own strategic voice and vision."
Born in Taiwan and raised in California, Liang danced as a soloist with New York City Ballet and later as a member of Nederlands Dans Theater 1, where he launched his choreographic career in 2003 at a company workshop. In 2004 he was invited back to NYCB and participated in Peter Martins' New York Choreographic Institute. He has since created ballets for some of the world's top companies, including Immortal Belovedfor Mariinsky Ballet, Age of Innocence for Joffrey Ballet and Symphonic Dances for San Francisco Ballet.
Ling working with the companyJennifer Zmuda, Courtesy BalletMet
Liang credits his work as a freelance choreographer for preparing him for his post at BalletMet, noting how it taught him to manage people and time, understand contracts and get the most out of dancer talent. The biggest challenge so far? A heavy workload that includes directing, choreographing and administrative and fundraising duties. On top of it all, he's managed to keep up with freelance opportunities, such as the creation of Murmuration for Houston Ballet in 2013 and upcoming projects with Kansas City Ballet, Tulsa Ballet and Cincinnati Ballet.
Liang's vision for BalletMet is for it to become a top boutique ballet company. “I am hoping to increase our visibility and be among the leaders in our range and size," he says. But to realize those goals, Liang feels the repertoire needs to rival that of the world's big name ballet companies. That's where his wealth of choreographer friends, like Christopher Wheeldon and Gustavo Ramirez Sansano—both of whose works were part of Liang's first planned program at BalletMet—will help in building a refreshed repertoire. But he's not parting ways with the company's more classical works. March 2015 will mark the world premiere of Liang's full-length Cinderella. “I want to create a clean, no frills sort of production to welcome the community to more classical ballet."
To up the quality of the unranked company and ensure it's suited to the new repertoire, Liang added seven members for a total roster of 26 this season. Altogether, they're a group of dancers who he says “hunger for innovation, inspiration and love and are humble to their craft."
Dancer Gabriel Gaffney Smith, now in his seventh season with the company, is one of those. He sees Liang as a leader with great poise and a clear vision of what he wants as a choreographer and as a director, saying he continues to promote a family-like atmosphere. “The dancers are made to feel they are in a two-way conversation during the creative process," says Smith. “He pushes you outside your boundaries so that they keep expanding."
Liang is just beginning to put into effect the changes he sees for the organization. Beyond the roster and repertoire retooling, he launched second company BalletMet 2 in 2014 to serve as both a community outreach vehicle and as a feeder to the main company. Also on tap are continued collaborative relationships with the Columbus Symphony, which, along with Opera Columbus, was a part of last September's Twisted: a Trio of Excellence; co-productions with Cincinnati Ballet and Tulsa Ballet; and touring opportunities. Under Liang's vision, it seems as though the company's reach will be ever expanding.
BalletMet Columbus at a Glance
Number of dancers: 26 in main company
Length of contract: 36 weeks
Starting salary: Follows AGMA standards
Performances per year: 55-60
Open auditions are held during January and February in Columbus, New York, Chicago and San Francisco for females 5' 7'' and under and males 5' 8'' and taller. Aside from delighting in technically versatile dancers who aren't afraid to attack choreography, Liang is drawn to those who are "bold enough to go the front," he says. "Let yourself be seen. Try to enjoy the process of auditioning, and all of that will come through."