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Juilliard Dance

Published: August 7, 2013
Category: profile

Jessica Lang Dance at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival


by Rachel Straus

The PillowNotes series comprises essays commissioned from our Scholars-in-Residence and others to provide audiences with a broader context for viewing dance.

When Loie Fuller’s Chinese dancers enwound/A shining web, a floating ribbon of cloth,/It seemed that a dragon of air/Had fallen among dancers, had whirled them round/Or hurried them off on its own furious path—William Butler Yeats

Like the American modern dance pioneer Loie Fuller (1862-1928), Jessica Lang’s works extend the boundaries of the dancing body. Through innovative sets and costumes, Lang and her accomplished dancers transform the stage into expressive landscapes. With fabric, paper, and video projections, Lang’s performers appear to transmogrify. Their dancing bodies become metaphors, symbols of a world in a continual state of change.

Though Lang’s dances touch on existential matters, the execution of her creativity is firmly grounded in the practical. “The sets can fold up like an accordion,” the former Twyla Tharp dancer says about her newest work, whose set has been realized by molo design studio founders Stephanie Forsythe and Todd MacAllen. “The walls can fit into a keyboard case,” Lang further explains. This travel-friendly design is intrinsic to Lang’s 82nd work, which is a 2013 Pillow commission. Last summer at the Pillow, Jessica Lang Dance (JLD) made its full company debut to sold-out audiences. This summer, following Lang’s Pillow world premiere, audiences plane rides away will have the opportunity to see the dance, and its visually provocative set. Cargo fees? They’ll be negligible.

Lang’s practicality expresses itself through the nuts and bolts aspects of touring dance, but also through her ideas, which bear a resemblance to those developed by The Bauhaus School (1919-1933). “Form follows function,” Bauhaus director Mies van der Rohe famously said. Likewise, Lang describes her set design-driven works in functional terms: “Objects possess infinite possibilities. Those who aren’t necessarily immediately or naturally drawn to dance can become engaged when they see how inanimate objects can dance and come to life.” Bauhaus School artists posited that good design is fundamentally democratic; Lang’s dances enjoy a for-the-people sensibility.

Lang’s works are complex in their creation and execution, but the experience of watching them is hardly academic; Lang’s dances earnestly plum a romantic vein. At the heart of i.n.k. (2011), the multimedia dance made in collaboration with visual artist Shinichi Maruyama and composer Jakub Ciupinski, a sensual duet arises. The relationship between the male and female dancer is expressed not only through their symbiotic partnering, but also in Maruyama’s video projection of an ink droplet. It imperceptibly descends, and as it is about to hit the floor, the couple’s relationship intensifies. Like an hourglass nearing empty, it feels as though time is running out.

While Lang directs and creates for her own dancers, she also is an in-demand freelance choreographer. Her commissions from dance companies are myriad and include Birmingham Royal Ballet, ABT II, and Joffrey Ballet. Her works, however, diverge from a current ballet trend in which female dancers on pointe are presented via their male partners’ ministrations in ways that foster a vision of female reliance. When Lang uses partnering, in contrast, the effect is that of mutual cooperation or of a transcendent flight. It’s also worth noting that Lang’s female dancers, as seen in Aria (2010) and White (2011), engulf space and propel themselves into the air with the same fearless physicality as their male counterparts. The women don’t play femme fatales or divas, and the men aren’t rakes or obsequious heroes. Instead, Lang’s performers appear as an egalitarian, often utopian, community of young men and women. Their utopianism is underscored by the dancers’ commitment to harmonious co-existence. Their egalitarianism is expressed through Lang’s highly physical choreography, which equally blends modern dance and classical ballet.

Lang’s interest in blending these dance traditions can be traced to her admiration for Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián. This former director of Nederlands Dans Theater had a significant influence on the equal balance between modern and ballet training at The Julliard School Dance Division, where Lang graduated, and also on her future career as a choreographer. When Lang first witnessed a Kylián work, as performed by Juilliard dance students, she became inspired to study composition. As with Kylián’s dance works, Lang’s movement style possesses a quality akin to waves, with their lows and highs, their troughs and crests. Similarly to Kylián, Lang’s choreography requires her performers to be technically versatile, and virtuosic. Her current company members, more than half of whom are founding members of JLD, are as conversant in Horton technique and jazz dance as they are in classical ballet.

These days Lang is examining the aesthetic spaces where ballet and modern dance traditions converge—and are strengthened by each other. Yet to her surprise, she finds that when she choreographs for a ballet company, she is described as a modern dance choreographer; and when she choreographs for a contemporary dance company, she is described as a ballet choreographer. “I would like to define what I am in my own way,” says Lang about her modern-ballet style. “Does ballet equal a tutu? Does ballet equal a leotard with pointe shoes? What is ballet or modern dance today?” These are challenging questions, ones that drive at the evolution of concert dance, and ones that, for Lang, prompted her to found her company.

As for making works with sets, Lang doesn’t always choreograph, or want to choreograph, in this vein. “Sometimes, I just want to make a dance!” Lang exclaims. Then she does so with modesty, conviviality and apparent ease, which belie the sophistication of her artistry and the soaring strength of her dances.

© 2013 Rachel Straus and Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival


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