Edwaard Liang calls it "a novice's optimism."
When Tulsa Ballet artistic director Marcello Angelini gave him six weeks to create a new evening-length Romeo and Juliet, Liang responded, "Sure, no problem!"
"Then I went home to my apartment and started calculating," he laughed. "I usually take three to four weeks for a 25-minute piece. This is two hours of choreography. It's a massive thing. But, you know, it's been smooth." (He ended up coming to Tulsa early and fitting in rehearsals here and there while the company prepared for The Nutcracker.)
"With this company, I always say yes. They're just fantastic to work with."
Romeo and Juliet marks a milestone for Liang, a young choreographer from New York who has created works for the likes of San Francisco Ballet and the Bolshoi. Though he has almost two dozen contemporary ballets to his name (including "Beautiful Child," created for Tulsa Ballet in 2010), he has never tackled a project of this magnitude.
It's also a history-making event for Tulsa Ballet.
"When it opens on February 10, Romeo and Juliet will be the first and only commissioned full-evening piece in the 55-year history of our organization," Angelini said.
Based on Shakespeare's play, Romeo and Juliet tells the story of the Montagues and the Capulets, feuding families in 16th-century Verona. The young lovers meet at a masquerade ball and are secretly married, only to be torn apart when Romeo flees the city after killing Juliet's relative Tybalt. Their reunion comes only at the price of their earthly lives.
Several famous versions of the ballet exist, notably by Sir Kenneth MacMillan for the Royal Ballet and John Cranko for the Stuttgart Ballet, both created in the 1960s. The original Royal Ballet production famously reignited Margot Fonteyn's career when it paired her with the young Rudolf Nureyev.
"There are only a handful of choreographers who have had the opportunity to create a new Romeo and Juliet," Liang said. "I started watching the other versions, but I had to stop. This is my opportunity to try my hand at it. I can't go in with the mindset, 'I've got to make a masterpiece.' I just want to make a good ballet. I want to show up the best I can and see what evolves."
What has evolved for Liang is a complex narrative based in classical ballet vocabulary and teeming with emotional dimensions.
"I'm not doing a complete contemporary version," he explained. "I wanted to keep the traditional aspects, but still find what my perspective was and how I wanted to pace out the story. The process was everything from intimidating to absolute joy to tons of homework."
The ballet features dynamic group dances and thrilling sword fighting between Montagues and Capulets, co-choreographed by famed theatrical fight director Steve White. With lavish, complex sets and costumes from Houston Ballet by renowned designer David Walker, and soaring music by Sergei Prokofiev played by the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, this is ballet on a grand scale.
But the real thrills in Tulsa Ballet's production come in the relationship between the star-crossed lovers.
"I wanted to show the humanity of the story. That's been the most fun part about this whole thing," Liang said.
"Being a choreographer, you make steps. But your biggest job is to be a psychiatrist. It was fun to think about how I would respond in each situation -- sort of like playing house."
Ballerinas Soo Youn Cho and Sofia Menteguiaga will alternate in the role of Juliet. They are polar opposites as dancers, Liang said, but both are "fantastically dedicated to bringing this alive," and he wanted to bring each of their essences into the role. After all, he said, "Juliet isn't a swan queen or a ghost; she's a real human being."
The character of Romeo, which will be danced by Alfonso Martin and Yi Wang, "needs to be multidimensional," Liang explained. "He shows some aspects of himself to his brothers in the town square, and others to Juliet. He can't just be a guy who looks good. He needs to be a little more down-and-dirty."
Secondary characters got careful attention from Liang too, from the lovable but hot-tempered Mercutio to the proud but anguished Lady Capulet.
Liang said he took some "creative license" with the ballet's ending, so that the audience might see "all the different colors of Juliet's reaction" to discovering that Romeo has taken poison after finding her apparently dead.
"It shows more than just 'woe is me.' I wanted to explore the question, 'What would you do for love?'"
"Whether it works or not," he said, "I can say that I gave it my all. I know that this particular experience is one I can never get back. I wanted to live it, feel it, every day."
Tulsa Ballet performs Romeo and Juliet Feb. 10 and 11 at 8 pm, and Feb. 12 at 3 pm, at the PAC.
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