The Washington Ballet announced on Tuesday that Edwaard Liang would be its next artistic director, starting immediately.
Liang, 48, comes to Washington after 10 years leading BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio. He succeeds Julie Kent, who was appointed in 2016 and left earlier this year to serve as the joint artistic director of Houston Ballet with Stanton Welch. Liang will continue to direct BalletMet through the end of its current season.
Liang, who was born in Taiwan and raised in California, is the first person of color to lead the Washington Ballet, and the first Asian American to lead an American ballet company of its size and stature. (Gen Horiuchi, the artistic director of the smaller St. Louis Ballet, is of Japanese descent.)
“It’s a major source of pride,” Liang said in an interview. “Such representation is a powerful statement that ballet is willing to move forward and change.” But being first also brings “mixed feelings,” he said. “I would love to have more diversity in dance, and I’m hoping that dance will bring in more leaders with broader perspectives and backgrounds.”
Liang, who trained at the School of American Ballet, danced with New York City Ballet from 1993 to 1999, rising to the rank of soloist. After performing in the Broadway show “Fosse” and with Nederlands Dans Theater, he returned to City Ballet from 2004 to 2008, before leaving to focus on his career as a choreographer.
He has been prolific in that field, with works performed by New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and the Bolshoi. During his tenure with BalletMet, he created 21 pieces for the company. Before his appointment with Washington Ballet, he made five works for that troupe.
At Washington Ballet, Liang will oversee both the company, which was founded in 1976 and has a budget of $11 million, and the Washington School of Ballet, founded in 1944. He described his vision for Washington Ballet as a balance of classical and contemporary works, including his own, that could help the company grow and bring in new audiences. “I’m never trying to educate my community,” he said. “It’s really about bringing them into the conversation. I think that’s probably one of the reasons I was hired, because the board feels I’m poised to start this conversation with the DC audience.”
“Edwaard’s commitment to shaping the future of ballet perfectly aligns with our ambitions as a dynamic, diverse midsize ballet company with an outsized impact in our community and in the ballet world,” Jean-Marie Fernandez, chair of the Washington Ballet board, said in a statement.
Reflecting on the impact he hopes to have, Liang recalled performing in New York City schools when he was 16. “What changed me completely was the response of the students,” he said. “They didn’t see a young Asian boy who was dancing in tights. They saw a young Asian boy who was heading toward his goal. I saw in their eyes the possibility that they could do it too.”