Jessica Lang Dance performing The Calling (excerpt from Splendid Isolation II).
Dancer K. Kimura. Photo by Sharon Bradford
If you read The New York Times’ Arts section or the frontmatter in The New Yorker you know there’s a whole lot going on in the big city dance world. Not much of it makes its way to this flyover town; in the last 365 days the only big-time non-local dance performances to come through are the rerun of Momix’s tepid full length production Opus Cactus and Christopher Wheeldon’s brilliant Broadway spectacle American in Paris – both have broad popular appeal, and both occurred at Overture Hall. The Wisconsin Union Theater takes more programming risks, and on Saturday, March 17, you can catch a straightforward evening of dance repertory works by New York’s it-girl of choreography, Jessica Lang. It’s an opportunity dance lovers shouldn’t overlook.
Lang, now in her early 40s, graduated from Juilliard’s Dance Division and began her professional career as a dancer in Twyla Tharp’s Tharp! company in the late 1990s – a path she gave up early to focus on choreography. She quickly became a prolific freelance choreographer, making works for renowned companies including American Ballet Theater, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Joffrey Ballet. In 2011 she founded Jessica Lang Dance (JLD).
Lang’s works aren’t pure ballet, though they’re imbued with classical sensibilities and she sometimes uses pointework. You could call them contemporary dance, but there’s a term that doesn’t mean much! Let’s just call them dance, the way musicians who pull together multiple related twenty-first century influences just call what they do music. Lang’s dances move, and they’re extraordinarily visual. There are five of them on the Madison program – a very varied set that includes a 2006 piece she made for Ailey II, The Calling; a 2016 work about war commissioned by Des Moines Performing Arts, Thousand Yard Stare (created for JLD), and a pair of dances from 2017, glow and Her Road, the former commissioned by Jacob’s Pillow and both created for JLD.
I interviewed Lang on the phone early this week; she was rushed and a bit brusque. Twyla Tharp does interviews like that! So I started there.
CulturalOyster: The thing everyone knows about your background is that you were in Twyla Tharp’s company in the ‘90s, and that’s what started your career out of college. How much of an influence was she on your work?
Lang: I think in the beginning I was more connected to her process – I really wasn’t thinking too much about her choreography influencing mine. It was more about who she was and what her career was that influenced me.
CulturalOyster: What about your pre-Tharp days – I know you went to Juilliard, but were you a teenage bunhead?
Lang: No! Yes, I was a dancer! I trained in ballet but I knew I wasn’t going to be a ballet dancer. I also had a background in jazz and tap and competition. I wanted to go to college for dance and my teacher, Joe Lanteri, was teaching jazz at Juilliard. He encouraged me to apply there.
CulturalOyster: Dance writers love to compare you to Mark Morris and Paul Taylor, and there are some ex-Morris dancers in your company. But specifically what is it about those two that echoes in your work?
Lang: I think it’s probably that we use music that has melody and we dance to it. That seems like a bizarre idea but I tend to be blunt and straightforward. I hear music and rhythm and I create to that.
CulturalOyster: Who or what else influences your art?
Lang: All of my teachers at Juilliard. But at this point in my career I don’t go to see dance and get inspired to make a dance – I do the opposite. Anything in the world can inspire me and as a result I can make a dance to that – to music, to architecture …
CulturalOyster: You were an itinerant choreographer before you founded your own company, and you still make works for other companies on the side. How has having a permanent home changed you?
Lang: I think the difference is in the dancers – the company was started because I really wanted the ability to work consistently with the same group of dancers. I wasn’t getting that working with outside companies. I think I make my best work on the dancers I know the best. That’s true for anyone. Having my own organization allows me to develop new insights that I can use outside and vice-versa.
How do I have time to do both? It’s a balance. But my primary focus is very much on my own company.
CulturalOyster: I spend a lot of time in the ballet world, and I’m always surprised at how many dancers, when they retire, leave dance entirely, or end up just teaching – not a lot of them become choreographers. What was your trajectory from performing to dancemaking, and what is it that separates those who go on to create from the rest?
Lang: I just didn’t want to dance. I went to Juilliard for dance and the experience was wonderful. I got into Twyla’s company and the experience of being a professional dancer was wonderful. But the touring, and performing the same works over and over – I didn’t like it. I knew I wanted to create more and I looked at choreographers I admired, like Twyla – and I realized they all started creating when they were young. They didn’t wait till the end of their dance career to start making dances. So I thought I should start as young as possible. I stopped dancing at 24, 25 – it’s been almost 20 years. I have great respect for dancers; I recognize that just being a good dancer doesn’t mean you don’t have talent. You can be both dancer and choreographer. But dancing and choreography are different artforms. We have to have people who create the material, and we have to have others who make it shine.
CulturalOyster: What’s your process – how do you work with your dancers when you’re creating a piece?
Lang: There’s an exploration at the beginning – we improvise and develop material in different ways, and then I start to craft it. The process is the same for an outside commission or with my company, but with the company the relationship is much tighter – it’s much more difficult to show up for a week on Monday and create a work on dancers you don’t know.
CulturalOyster: I always want to know how dancers train – if you’re in Jessica Lang Dance, what’s company class like?
Lang: It’s ballet. Sometimes we do a modern class but we do more ballet than modern, and a bit of what we call LANGuage – a creative exploration that connects dancers before rehearsal. My dancers are all highly trained, technically.
CulturalOyster: One last question – looking at the video clips of the works on the Madison bill, I’m struck by three recurring currents in your work – one is highly visual, in the painterly sense, the sculptural sense – the startling color in glow, the way the dancers work with those black collapsable objects in Lyric Pieces, the stunningly sculptural single image in The Calling. Another is drama – your works, emotionally, are at the other end of the spectrum from, say, Balanchine’s Concerto Barroco. But still – and this is the third thing – despite the drama, there’s what Balanchine called music made visible, which comes through even in Thousand Yard Stare – just from the video clip you can see how it’s evocative of war, with the fatigues and the strobes, but at the same time through the magic of the Beethoven score it’s pure dance. When you create a work, do you start with these three things – the visual, emotional, and movement components – and see how you can weave them together?
Lang: No, not consciously. I think that’s who I am, and I’m glad that’s perceived. Music is very important to me; craft is very important. With visual art – I feel very moved by objects, and collaboration with visual artists and architects is important, it’s something I pursue. The emotion behind the work is just – I am an emotional person. I react to the world with that kind of intense feeling, so I think that comes through in my work as a result.
___________________________________________________interview by SK