About Edwaard Liang’s The Infinite Ocean

Edwaard Liang’s The Infinite Ocean will be performed in SF Ballet’s 2020 Season. The Infinite Ocean is part of Program 03, Dance Innovations, which runs Feb 13, 15, 18, 19, 21, and 23, 2020.

Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola

As a dancer, Edwaard Liang loved being in a company, being part of something bigger than himself, one player in the complex, mentally and physically challenging process of creating art. After a major career in ballet and on Broadway, he turned to choreographing, a role in which he not only participates in the creative process, he drives it. Today, as a longtime choreographer, and artistic director of BalletMet since 2013, Liang is known for creating dramatic works, fueled by extreme emotions. His third work for San Francisco Ballet, The Infinite Ocean, hovers in the space between life and death, when spirits must let go of whatever ties them to the physical world. It’s a time he calls “the awakening.”

Liang’s focus of late, both personally and professionally, has been on spirituality and life and death. When Liang was 13, his father died of cancer; in recent years, many of his friends have grappled with terminal illnesses. The idea behind this ballet began to simmer when he got a Facebook message from one of those friends: “I will see you on the other side of the infinite ocean.”

Liang had previously tackled the life-after-death theme with 13th Heaven at Singapore Dance Theatre, but he wanted to work more with the idea of the transition to death. “A lot of people think that ghosts or entities are spirits that cannot let go of the past and this earthly plane, so they are stuck in between,” he says. “The concept [of The Infinite Ocean] is that these are people that, at this particular time, are transitioning. It may not always be what we consider like drifting toward the light. I want it to be a little bit more chaotic.”

For music, he turned to composer Oliver Davis, with whom he’d worked on 13th Heaven. “I like that he writes such a quirky, interesting blend of minimalist music but with this baroque feel,” says Liang. “And he loves to work with strings, and I really wanted a violin concerto [for this ballet]. So it was a natural fit.”

To prepare, Liang pondered what he wanted the dancers to think about. “These are the same questions I was going to ask myself,” Liang says. “Who would you like to see [before you go]? And it doesn’t have to be a who—what would you like to see? What touches and moves and inspires you about the unknown? And whatever your belief is, what is it that makes your heart sing? We want to be heard, we want to be seen, we want to feel connected to something. What does that mean to you? The dancers’ responses would inform and individualize their movement.

When the ballet opens, the “transitioners” are struggling with these questions. “Everybody’s in silhouette,” Liang says, “and they’re walking toward the infinite ocean,” toward a light source inspired by a brilliant orb in a 2003 light installation by Olafur Eliasson at the Tate Modern. As they walk, they should reveal themselves as individuals, with their own needs and desires, Liang says. “You want to walk like the pure essence of you, as energy.”

San Francisco Ballet in Liang’s The Infinite Ocean // © Erik Tomasson

At first, these transitioning souls resist leaving. “There’s a lot of going toward, reconnecting with each other, disconnecting,” Liang says. “But they’re really not looking at each other, not until a little bit later, when they’re reliving their relationships.” In a duet created on Principal Dancers Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets, the interaction is “soft, spiritual, romantic,” Liang says. Another couple is young, on their first date, facing the loss of promise and potential when their lives are cut short. A men’s dance “a choppy adventure” shows the angst involved in letting go of life, he says.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Vitor Luiz in Liang’s The Infinite Ocean // © Erik Tomasson

In a duet created on Principal Dancers Yuan Yuan Tan and Vitor Luiz, Liang wanted to play with the idea of soul mates. Their relationship is tumultuous, “a constant circling and trying to find each other,” he says. For this couple, especially the woman, accepting that it’s time to leave bodily life is more difficult than it is for the others. “Obviously there’s some unresolved thing,” Liang says.

One day, during a rehearsal break, Liang turned on the music and started dancing. He began slowly, with small steps that gained speed and power, moving with concentration and obvious emotion. Maybe it was then that he got the first inkling of what he realized when the rough draft of the ballet was done—that it is “a love letter to my father,” he says. “He’s the first person I want to see [when I die]. It’s been so long since his death that I didn’t realize how desperate I am to reconnect with him. That was my journey through this process.”


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Header image: Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets in Liang’s The Infinite Ocean // © Erik Tomasson

About Stanton Welch’s Bespoke

Stanton Welch’s Bespoke will be performed in SF Ballet’s 2020 Season. Bespoke is part of Program 02, Classical (Re)Vision, which runs Feb 11–22, 2020.

Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola

In Stanton Welch’s Bespoke, expressions of love and gestures of caring abound. This piece, his sixth for San Francisco Ballet, is indeed about love, but it’s not about romance. Instead, Welch explores the love of dancers for their art form—the technique of ballet, the artistry, the rush of live performance. It’s an intense relationship, and one that’s all too fleeting.

That intensity, and the brevity of a dance career, occupy Welch’s thoughts quite often. “It’s a deep love dancers have with ballet,” says Welch, artistic director of Houston Ballet. “I don’t think many professions have that commitment, where you love it and when you’re around 30 to 40, it leaves you. And you know it going in, and that’s difficult.” For a long time after he retired from the stage, Welch reassured himself that he could still dance if he chose to. With the realization that those days are now behind him, he found himself wistful, longing to turn back the clock. And so clock imagery, the idea of time passing, persists throughout this ballet.

The piece begins with a solo man moving in silence. Welch hadn’t planned to start the ballet that way, but the idea came to him as he worked with Principal Dancer Angelo Greco, whom he describes as “hypnotic. He’s young and he’s fearless. He’s exactly what we should be when we first fall in love with ballet.” In the first movement, the dancers are “vital and alive,” Welch says, “with stellar technique—a truth that’s gloriously apparent in the opening moments of silence.

Angelo Greco in Welch’s Bespoke // © Erik Tomasson

Along with demonstrating brilliant technique, the brief solo introduces some of the movement motifs that characterize this ballet. One is the “ticking” of straight arms, hands flattened and perpendicular to the floor; they snap into place, replicating the movement of a clock’s second hand. One dancer begins this movement, and the others join in—no one is spared the marking of time. With the ballet’s central pas de deux, quiet and poignant, the next stage begins. There’s a struggle here—the man is moving on and the woman can’t accept it. She touches him repeatedly, and each time he covers her hand with his; then she pulls her hand away and tries again. “It’s like he’s breaking, and he’s trying to convince her,” Welch says. The last movement, dominated by walking (symbolizing togetherness) and rocking motifs, is about aging dancers being left behind as class and ballet companies go on, eternal.

At times throughout the ballet, the dancers race across the stage and disappear into the wings, a device prompted in part by Welch’s memory of when he first came to the United States from Australia and was impressed by how much floor space the dancers covered. It’s a characteristic of American-style dancing, he says, and “it’s thrilling to see.” 

This is all subtext, however. What’s on the surface are steps that delve deeply into the intricacies of five musical movements from two early-1700s violin concertos, the only ones by Johann Sebastian Bach that have survived their own passage of time. For Welch, illuminating the music is a big part of the joy of choreographing. “That wonderful [George] Balanchine quote about making music come alive is very much what I think we are all trying to do [as choreographers],” he says. Bach has many layers that listeners might not notice at first, and “the deeper you get into it, the richer it is.” Through movement, Welch points out melodies, rhythms, accents, undertones that delight him or reveal the music’s subtext. “Great choreographers like [Jiří] Kylián and Balanchine, those musical people, they always teach me something about music,” he says. “You go home and re-listen to it and go, “Wow, that is how that’s phrased.”

San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Welch’s Bespoke // © Erik Tomasson

The freshness of Welch’s neoclassical movement, says Helgi Tomasson, SF Ballet’s artistic director and principal choreographer, comes from “the way the dancers move today; maybe the dancers he was working with brought that out. Time changes all of us. We are influenced by what we see, how society is.”

Step into the studio while Welch is at work and you’ll notice how often he laughs, how delighted he seems to be there. The process of creating is what he enjoys most, he says; it’s more rewarding than a premiere. “When they’re in it and you’re in it, you can go for five, six hours and not wear out, and that’s fun,” he says.

Frances Chung and Esteban Hernandez in Welch’s Bespoke // © Erik Tomasson

Welch calls these dancers “fantastically musical,” a trait he thinks is one of the Company’s strengths. “[Principal Dancer] Frances [Chung] is a great model of that—she could do the same step 50 times and just change it by accent, and that’s great dancing, and clever. I wanted to make that [musicality] part of the work because I think that’s San Francisco.”


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Header image: Jennifer Stahl and Carlo Di Lanno in Welch’s Bespoke // © Erik Tomasson