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Juilliard Dance

Published: July 26, 2012
Category: profile

Jessica Lang Dance at Jacob's Pillow

by Rachel Straus

“A letter always seemed to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.” ~Emily Dickinson

In 2002 Jessica Lang opened a mysterious letter that was discovered in the office of Benjamin Harkarvy, the recently deceased artistic director of The Juilliard School’s dance division. The letter was five years old, addressed to her, and written by the eminent dance pedagogue. Harkarvy’s communication touched upon Lang’s imminent graduation from The Juilliard School. “Mr. Harkarvy wrote that he wanted me to perform, to dance, to touch audiences,” says Lang. By 2002 the Pennsylvania-born dancer had done just that, performing at Jacob’s Pillow, in 1998, and beyond in Twyla Tharp’s acclaimed company THARP! Lang, now a dancer turned choreographer, read and reread Harkarvy’s impassioned words. The timing of the letter fortified Lang’s commitment to craft dances. The experience felt like a calling.

Today Lang’s creations for well-known companies, performers, and educational institutions number more than 75. That is a no small feat for a choreographer under the age of 40. This season at Jacob’s Pillow, Jessica Lang Dance is making its official company debut. Lang says incorporating a company is a necessary step in deepening her hybrid style, which many have had difficulty categorizing. “When I choreograph on a modern dance company,” Lang explains, “my work can be seen as the most balletic piece on the program. Alternatively, my creations for ballet companies tend to be seen as the most contemporary or modern on the program.” Like Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris, Lang is a crossover choreographer, equally comfortable working with dancers on pointe as those in bare feet. “Jessica Lang’s work,” explains dance writer Nancy Dalva, “springs from a fierce, bred-in-bone commitment to formal movement, expressed not in categories—modern, ballet, post-modern—but in a fluid vocabulary that reflects her classical training, and her performance career with Twyla Tharp.” Lang’s approach also reflects her Juilliard education, which places equal emphasis on ballet and modern dance techniques.

In her inaugural season at the Pillow, Lang presents five dances, made between 2005 and 2012. Audiences will have the rare opportunity to see Lang’s works performed by a core group of dancers that she has collaborated with consistently for the past five years. Among them is Lang’s husband Kanji Segawa; The Calling was made on him. The 2006  work, commissioned by Ailey II, is inspired by Lang’s reverence for Benjamin Harkarvy, whom she met when she was a six-year-old, performing in his Pennsylvania Ballet Nutcracker. (Harkarvy also had a significant Pillow history, spanning more than 30 years and culminating with his directorship in the 1980s of The School’s Ballet Program.) The Calling, says Lang, “is about being so close to hearing him, but you can’t see him.” The work’s beauty resides with its simplicity. A soloist, performed by a man or a woman, appears rooted to the ground by a voluminous skirt whose whiteness symbolizes mourning in Japanese culture and whose size transforms the dancer’s lower body to resemble a deity coming out of a reflecting pool. Meanwhile the dancer’s upper body and arms reach skyward like a soaring eagle.

The enthusiastic response to The Calling, set to Trio Mediaeval’s recording of “O Maria, stella maris,” has led the work to become Lang’s professional calling card. The Royal Birmingham Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Ailey II, Washington Ballet, Morphoses, Hubbard Street II, Richmond Ballet, Kansas City Ballet, the Guggenheim Museum, The Dallas Museum of Art, BMW International Industrials, and the Australian pop singer Sia have all commissioned Lang. She has created conceptually inventive works, realized through costumes and sets, which illuminate each ballet’s central idea.

For the duet Among the Stars (2010), Lang incorporated a huge swath of diaphanous silver fabric. At times it takes the shape of the Milky Way and separates the male and female dancer. But when the woman split leaps over this celestial divide and into her companion’s arms, the oft-performed jump feels transcendent. Like The Calling, Lang fosters tension between spiritual harmony and spatial distance. The contrast between what is desired and what exists is an important theme in her works.

Modest and plainspoken, Lang doesn’t attribute recent successes to her efforts alone. She expresses a debt to Harkarvy and to Bessie Schönberg, who was her composition teacher at Juilliard (and who taught an annual composition workshop at Jacob’s Pillow for 17 years). Lang speaks of her mother, who ferried her five days a week from a Philadelphia suburb to Joe Lanteri’s lauded New York City jazz dance class. Lanteri’s influence is seen in this program’s opening work, a world premiere for nine dancers. Lines Cubed plays with the sharp lines, strong dynamics and quick directional changes of jazz dance.

In the second group work, From Foreign Lands and People…(2005), the dancers move large black blocks into arrangements that resemble mini cityscapes. The blocks structure the dancers’ relationships to each other and also represent a piano’s black keys. Robert Schumann’s piano sonatas, which will be played live, drive the emotional qualities of the ballet’s sections. Some are dark and profound, while others are bright and witty. Lang’s synthesis of sound, set, and movement vocabulary (in which the performers scale, ricochet off, and even dance with the blocks) makes for a total artwork.

Through a keen visual sensibility, a plurality of dance vocabularies, and an intimate connection with the spirit of her teachers, Lang creates works with rare agency. The Roman poet Virgil wrote, “Your profession is what you were put on earth to do. With such passion and such intensity that it becomes spiritual in calling.” Lang, with her rigor and faith, is on such a path.

© 2012 Rachel Straus and Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival

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