November 7, 2018

Choreographer Lang Finds Inspiration In The Expected and the Unexpected

DANCE AND ARCHITECTURE: Choreographer Jessica Lang collaborated with architect Stephen Holl, who designed The Lewis Center for the Arts, on “Tesseracts of Time,” one of the works on the program when Jessica Lang Dance comes to McCarter Theatre Friday, November 16. (Photo by Todd Rosenberg)

By Anne Levin

There is a local connection attached to the return of Jessica Lang Dance to McCarter Theatre on Friday, November 16. The in-demand choreographer has created a work in collaboration with Stephen Holl, the architect responsible for Princeton University’s $330 million Lewis Center for the Arts, which opened just over a year ago.

“I’m interested in anything that kind of winks at me and says, ‘Make a dance,’ ” said Lang, during a phone conversation between rehearsals of her nine-member company. The “wink” for Tesseracts of Time (the term “tesseract” comes from mathematics and represents the equivalent of a cube in a four-dimensional space) came in the form of a commission from Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance in 2015. It was an experience that Lang embraced.

“We had a great time. He was so involved,” she said of the famed architect. “It wasn’t like, ‘Here’s a book on my work, good luck.’ He was in it with me, right there in the studio, making decisions. We had a lot of meetings about what he designed for me, which was too big at first so we had to make adjustments. Some of it is built, and some is projected. So there are some really nice surprises that happen throughout the piece.”

Holl will be on hand for the November 16 performance, and will join Lang for a  discussion after the show about the relationship between architecture and dance.

Raised in Doylestown, Pa., and trained at The School of The Pennsylvania Ballet and The Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet, Lang knew by the time she was 14 that she wanted to be a choreographer. But training as a dancer remained her focus. She graduated from The Juilliard School in 1997, and was accepted into the company of maverick choreographer Twyla Tharp.

“Working with her and witnessing her as a creator was amazing. And it definitely showed me the profession,” Lang said. “When the company folded in 1999, she just sat us down and told us, and that was it. We had three more months of work with her, and that allowed me time to think about what I really wanted to do. I didn’t rush. In the not rushing, I think I was able to give myself time to play and dream and set myself off on a path toward making dances and hopefully making a living at it.”

Benjamin Harkarvy, Lang’s former teacher at Juilliard and Pennsylvania Ballet, advised her to go after commissions instead of trying to start her own company. She took his advice. Almost immediately, her talent as a choreographer was noticed. She was soon making dances for American Ballet Theatre’s ABT II, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s Hubbard Street II, and the Pennsylvania Ballet. “There was no turning back after that,” Lang said. “I started my own group 13 years later. I got a grant from The Joyce Foundation, made a nonprofit, formed a board, and here we are. But I still freelance.”

Just a few weeks ago, American Ballet Theatre premiered Lang’s 102nd work, Garden Blue. “Lang is arguably the most important woman choreographer to emerge since the days of Twyla Tharp,” William Lockwood, McCarter’s special programming director, commented in a written statement. “A common theme in much of her work is the integration of design, music, and dance; she is as interested in imagining shapes and compositions on stage as she is in steps, combining bodies, music, and an architectural element.”

Also on the McCarter program is A Thousand Yard Stare, which Lockwood saw first in a workshop production. “I was determined to bring it to McCarter,” he said. “It represents her individual voice at its highest point, illustrating her mastery of visual composition and her gift for conveying emotion with simplicity and power.” Set to the adagio movement from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15, the work’s title is “a reference to the lingering trauma that combat veterans can suffer from the rituals of war —  marching crawling, trudging,” Lockwood added. “Lang pulls no punches, it is not an easy work to watch.”

When Lang last brought her company to McCarter, they performed in the Berlind Theater. This time, they are on the larger Matthews stage. The appearance is part of a 19-city tour, which will include a premiere at the Annenberg Center in Philadelphia on November 30 of a work called Us/We. Lang describes it as “a reflection of what we’re dealing with around the world,” she said. “It takes us through the global idea of humanity and brings us straight into the multicultural diversity of New York’s five boroughs before going back out into the world. It’s very different from what we have done in the past, but its very purposeful and right now.”

As her company continues to take her dances on tour, Lang finds time to create works for other dance troupes as well. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and the Birmingham Royal Ballet are among her current clients.

“I have a really good balance right now,” she said. “What I prefer most is making dance. But I have had tremendous success at that, and at running a company. I am very lucky.”