Rachel Straus - Dance Writer

Find by Date

March 2021

Rachel’s blog @

View Rachel @

Juilliard Dance

Published: July 29, 2015
Category: profile

Jessica Lang Dance in

by Rachel Straus

When Loïe 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-born dance pioneer Loïe Fuller (1862-1928), Jessica Lang’s works elegantly extend the boundaries of the dancing body through architectural décor that resembles abstractions of nature. Lang’s creative process is akin to a conceptual artist’s. She envisions, like Fuller, her ideas as poetic visions. Last year Lang was honored in these terms with an Outstanding Emerging Choreographic Award at the New York Dance and Performance Awards (“The Bessies”).

The conceptual inspiration for Lang’s The Wanderer (2014), made in part through a Jacob’s Pillow Creative Development Residency, emerged from an image she sketched. “One of my ideas,” she explains, “was to make a tree completely out of white string.” With this drawing of a tree in mind, Lang searched for music and came upon Franz Schubert’s 1824 song cycle “Die Schöne Müllerin” (The Fair Maid of the Mill), based on the poems of his contemporary Wilhelm Müller. Schubert’s adapted lyrics gave Lang a story in which a brook—like the probing roots of the tree Lang drew—snakes through the narrative and is central to its tragic ending. In Lang’s dance dramatization, The Brook comes to life through the lyrical dancing of Kana Kimura. She is the muse and then the spirit of consolation to The Wanderer who falls in love with the titular Fair Maid.

Photo by Andrea Mohin

Photo by Andrea Mohin

Lang’s first full-evening work belongs to the tradition of gesamkuntswerk (total artwork) championed by Richard Wagner (1813-1883); music, dance, décor, and narrative coalesce, each enhancing one another. Wagner’s gesamkuntswerk operas were influenced by the romantic song cycles of Franz Schubert (1797-1828), whose “Fair Maidhas been hailed as a miracle of collaboration for its fusion of text, song, and piano. Similarly, Lang’s collaborative ethos in The Wanderer is built on Schubert’s. Not only do the baritone and the pianist perform on a multi-tiered stage, but the singer becomes fully integrated into Lang’s superb cast of eight dancers. His vibrant voice acts like a ship’s sail, giving direction to Lang’s fluid, and at times, playful choreography.

Lang’s knack for collaboration has roots in her undergraduate days at The Juilliard School, where she recalls young artists singing opera, playing jazz, acting Shakespeare, and learning contemporary dance works during the day and coming together in rehearsals for independent projects that lasted into the night. In The Wanderer, Lang joins forces with the set designer Mimi Lien, an architect by training, who brings to life Lang’s vision of a morphing tree that becomes the fulcrum of her work. “The [rope] material could become the brook, it could become the roots of the tree,” explains Lien, who in creating the substantial yet delicate set made it possible for it to be manipulated by the performers. To further this effect of mutability, Lang invited lighting designer Nicole Pearce to respond through color and light to the emotional journey of the Wanderer figure, whose sunny idealism brings upon his dark ending.

When The Wanderer premiered last December at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The New York Times described it as “a work of high craftsmanship.” Much of this craftwork was accomplished during a Creative Development Residency last September at the Pillow, the latest of several career-boosting opportunities that began with the official company debut of Jessica Lang Dance at the Pillow in 2012. This year, the young company makes its third appearance at the Festival, while Lang also created a new work for the Ballet Program students of The School at Jacob’s Pillow in 2013.

While Lang is devoting more of her time to making dances for her young company, she nonetheless remains an in-demand freelance choreographer, having been commissioned by Birmingham Royal Ballet, ABT II, and Joffrey Ballet. Her works, however, diverge from a current ballet trend in which female dancers are featured on pointe and are constantly partnered. Instead, Lang’s female dancers engulf space with the same fearlessly independent physicality as their male counterparts. This equanimity, says Lang, is inspired by the works of Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián, the longtime former director of Nederlands Dans Theater, one of the first companies to train its performers in both modern dance and ballet. Similarly to Kylián dancers, Lang’s are ballet trained, yet they are equally conversant in Limón, Graham, and Horton techniques. This training fuels Lang’s ballet-modern hybrid style.

Photo by Andrea Mohin

Photo by Andrea Mohin

Yet with all this said, Lang’s first focus is her concept. “I don’t ever start with movement,” she explains, “because there is too much possibility and I get lost. I need to bind myself to the idea and keep pulling myself back to it. Is this movement supporting this idea?” In the last moments of The Wanderer, the baritone sings in German, “The full moon climbs, the mist fades away, and the heavens above, how wide they are!” At the same time, Lang choreographs Kimura to unfold her limbs; her ribs slowly expand upwards to the afore-described heavens. Binding herself to the lyrics, Lang’s movement choice becomes firmly grounded in an idea, one that stays the course of her concept, is collaborative, and ultimately transcendent.



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

©  2015 Rachel Straus and Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival

Comments are closed.