Joan Liu is a soloist, resident choreographer, and faculty member at American Liberty Ballet. She is also on faculty at Ballet Arts at New York City Center and founder of Dance Dat Science project. Joan received her master degree in Biology from New York University before going on to pursue her MA in Dance Education through the collaborated program between NYU and American Ballet Theatre.
These two degrees together heavily influenced Joan’s choreography and teaching philosophy, where she constantly challenges herself to see things through different lenses. Having been trained in multiple genres and movement modalities, Joan draws inspirations from various dance forms and movement modalities. Joan’s work has been presented in historic venues such as New York City Center, Dixon Place, Players Theater, and Frederick Loewe Theatre as well as internationally in Canada and Taiwan.
How did you land the opportunity to choreograph a full-length ballet on American Liberty Ballet?
I’ve been choreographing for as long as I can remember. The dance training system in Taiwan required us to take regular classes in choreography/improvisation and I remembered that to have always been my strength. I am not sure if I’ve always liked it, but teachers throughout my life have urged me to keep choreographing. During my time at the NYU/ABT program, I did my final project in creative movement course, taught by the incredible Deborah Damast, on that year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. I was able to see yet another way dance can bring awareness to science, which later became the Dance Dat Science project. Since graduating, I’ve been submitting my choreography to festivals and have been lucky enough to get into a few. When the director of American Liberty Ballet, Valerie Mae Browne, needed to take maternity leave this spring, she asked if I would step in and choreograph the spring show. I was terrified because I felt I didn’t have enough experience, but I said yes!
Originally, I wanted to choreograph a production called “bubble tea” because I am obsessed with bubble tea. It was another project I did during my NYU/ABT time where I created a choreography plan for a course taught by Jessica Lang. I realized as I planned it out more, the bubble tea concept doesn’t really fit the strengths of ALB, so I went with my other love, pasta! My nickname is Joany Macaroni, so it’s only natural!
What was the process of <Pasta> like?
It was a wild ride! I knew I had very limited resources such as time, budget…etc. so I had to be very efficient. At the same time, the creative process isn’t always black and white. I was very interested in showing off each individual dancer of the company. ALB doesn’t have a principal rank, thus I didn’t want to create a principal role. The lead female role of <Pasta> is “salt”, a jazz shoe role. It’s the only female company member role not in pointe shoes, and the “salt” solos involved classical jazz movements and lots of floor work. In one of the casts, “salt” was even danced by a corps de ballet member (Raquel Beauchamp). At the same time, I respect the traditional structure of a full-length ballet and wanted to give a definite nod in that sense: my closing number of the first act, boiling, can be seen structurally similar to that of “snow scene” in Nutcracker. It was a large number and one of the most technically demanding of the whole ballet. I also took the structure of “grand pas de deux” and broke it down. The lead male and female has their solo variation, and the “grand pas” was the “drunk dance” with some whimsical partnering.
Choreographically, perhaps because I am an educator at heart, I am interested in taking the dancers slightly out of their comfort zone. The pieces range in difficulties, some challenge the dancers technically, some challenge them artistically, and then there are some that incorporate props and circus-like manoeuvres. I also gave a lot of room for interpretation in terms of solos. Quite often, I would give a task rather than a very specific step. I would tell the dancers the intention and let them play with how they would like to portray that intention within the confine of my vague movement instructions. I am very impressed by how much the dancers have grown during the process!
What’s next after such a big project?
The immediate goal is to rest and to heal my body. I’ve sustained quite a few injuries in the past few years, two of which took me out of daily classes, and neither has healed completely, yet. I would like to take some time to reset and to really ask what direction to go in the future. The idea of creating my own company has been swimming in my head. If that happens, I would like to incorporate Dance Dat Science into it. It’s been a passion of mine to have cross-talks between the science and the arts, the practical and the theoretical, the audience and the performer…etc. I also love research and am fascinated by the human body, so the possibility of getting a doctorate in Physical Therapy and/or Dance Education is another option that’s been marinating. There’s a lot to think about, but I am very excited for what the future has in store! Who knows? I might do it all!
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