Pivoting and Pitfalls: BalletMet’s Edwaard Liang Talks Programming a New Season in a Time of Pandemic

BalletMet in The Nutcracker. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda Dance Photography.

By Steve Sucato

With uncertainty being the underlying theme of 2020, Columbus, Ohio’s BalletMet has taken a wait and see approach to announcing its new 2020-21 dance season. While many ballet companies in the U.S. have given into the inevitability of having to conduct their seasons in the virtual world and have announced their new season, BalletMet artistic director Edwaard Liang and staff have chosen to not to set in stone any plans. Rather they have been doling out programming announcements and performance programs one at a time. For that latter part of this year those have come in the form of streaming previously recorded repertory works from their achieves for free to audiences.  But Liang sees drawbacks to committing to an all virtual season as many of his colleagues at other dance companies have. The most glaring being the growing effect of virtual programming fatigue on audiences. For its previous online showings of Justin Peck’s “In Creases” (2012) and Christopher Wheeldon’s “Fool’s Paradise” (2007), both works under 30-minutes, Liang says only 60% of the virtual audience viewed each ballet for more 10-minutes. That begs the question as to whether there is going to be a continued audience for their virtual programming and whether BalletMet can afford the necessary equipment, staff and expertise to create new virtual productions.  

“Every company has a different financial situation,” says Liang. “Some companies have an endowment, some deeper pockets because of their boards of directors and some are majority contributed income. We probably suffer more than other companies because we are 65% earned income. You take away that chuck of the pie and it is hard to move forward.”

While Liang says adopting a pay model for future online programming is certainly on the table, it is not a lone solution that will keep organization’s doors open.

“I don’t think any non-profit is going to say no to any earned revenue,” says Liang. “We are all trying to go for the paid online model. Talking with artistic directors Peter Boal [at Pacific Northwest Ballet], Lourdes Lopez [Miami City Ballet] and others that changed to all digital seasons, however, not one of them or any development or financial directors at those organizations say there is a future in it in terms of a [positive] financial impact for their organizations. This approach is just to keep our names out there and to give something back to the community while we are fundraising.”

Liang says he spends the bulk of his time these days fundraising for the company and sees that as a larger lifeline for the organization.

“Our Columbus audience has been really wonderful and have stepped up during this time in their support of the company,” says Liang. “That has been a huge positive for us. Our Keep us Dancing fund drive has also received a $275,000 challenge grant.”

BalletMet in The Nutcracker. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda Dance Photography.

Those fundraising efforts have allowed the company to offer local audiences and beyond its current online program, A Nutcracker Holiday. Running now through December 27, 2020, A Nutcracker Holiday is a replacement for its most popular in-theater production lost due to the pandemic, its annual The Nutcracker ballet. The online Nutcracker-themed experience available for free at anutcrackerholiday.balletmet.org is headlined by the all-new “Clara’s Nutcracker Prince,” a 30-minute film featuring an abbreviated version of former BalletMet artistic director Gerard Charles’ The Nutcracker ballet taken from footage from previous recordings of the stage production and featuring Tchaikovsky’s iconic score for the ballet performed by the Columbus Symphony. Added to that, Liang created a scenario in which the ballet’s main character Clara Staulbaum, now a teenaged adult, looks back on her favorite childhood memory that forms the basis of The Nutcracker story.

In watching the film, actress Kate Mason as the older Clara does a marvelous job narrating the ballet’s story, adding a warmth and delight to the film that is sure to resonate with children of all ages. The film breezes through the ballet’s act one party scene while still hitting the highpoints in the storytelling. The meat of the production’s dancing then comes at the end of the act when both Clara and her nutcracker toy are transformed into teenagers in the ballet’s snow scene and then continues throughout the rest of the ballet.

Kudos to Jenifer Zmuda who filmed, directed, and edited (Julio Alvia is also credited) “Clara’s Nutcracker Prince”.  As a cut-down Nutcracker production, it managed to capture much of the tradition and magic of the full ballet while still telling the ballet’s story clearly and succinctly. It is an attention-span friendly and heartwarming view for the entire family.

Also, a part of A Nutcracker Holiday online are children’s activities including The Nutcracker scavenger adventure, coloring pages and holiday crafts along with several seasonal food recipes, themed Spotify playlists, a reprise of BalletMet’s popular web series Finding Clara and a grand raffle to support the organization.

Edwaard Liang. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda Dance Photography.

As for the new season Liang says plans are made for two repertory programs that will hopefully be performed live at BalletMet’s performance space to audiences of thirty or less weekends from March – May 2021.

BalletMet’s company dancers will not be back to work until January. Liang says they will be ushered back slowly beginning with a couple weeks of classes and then dive into 6 weeks of rehearsals on 4 new ballets from BalletMet dancers Karen Wing and Leiland Charles, former BalletMet dancer Gabriel Gaffney Smith and Liang that will be performed in the aforementioned programs.  

“That is what is on the books,” says Liang. “Quite honestly though I am not sure we are going to be able to do 12 weekends of shows because I don’t know what is going to happen with the pandemic.”

Also, in the planning stages is a third program slated for June 2021 that could include the ballet Giselle.

Liang says BalletMet’s strategy is to push forward and create new work and when they get the green light from government health officials and dancer union AGMA, add in select excerpts from existing repertory works to those upcoming programs.  

Pivoting, pirouetting, and planning on a metaphorical dance floor that is constantly shifting under them will continue to be the order of each day for Liang and many other dance company directors and staff for the foreseeable future.  “Everyone has a different recipe on moving their organizations forward but everyone is being heroic and warriors pushing through during this pandemic,” says Liang.

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.