Jessica Lang Dance, the Long Island City-based company of choreographer Jessica Lang, performed at the Eccles Center on Friday night*. Lang founded her company in 2011; prior to this, both new commissions and re-stagings of Lang’s work have been prolific in the rep of many ballet companies internationally, from Ballet West to Richmond Ballet to Birmingham Royal Ballet. Friday’s performance featured JLD’s own nine dancers in five selected works, all created by Lang within the last ten years.
JLD dancer Jammie Walker opened the program with “Solo Bach”, a compelling and concise solo replete with nuanced musicality and exultant gestures, as well as some very impressive tricks (a back somersault into a handstand, and a moment where Walker popped up into a contraction, with only the arch of one foot holding him up in this position). The solo’s choreographic structure mimicked that of Bach’s composition in its reprises, but Walker’s delighted performance made each repetition new again. He ended with his arms opening upward and toward the audience, inviting us in until the very end.
“Sweet Silent Thought” featured a quartet of performers and recitations (trance-like, a quality enhanced by static crackling added to the recording) of Shakespearean sonnets. At first, men danced to recitations by men, and women to those by women. Eventually, that pattern was broken; two men partnered each other, and ambient music gave way to some more traditional partnering between the two couples.
While there was nothing especially memorable about “Sweet Silent Thought”, there was a moment for me that capitalized upon the company’s strength as a whole. A couple of the dancers slid into push-up positions with incredible grace and delicacy, yet exhibited a stalwart strength in doing so: a fitting analogy for the dancers’ ability to exude both an elegant, balletic sensibility as well as a contemporary sense of attack and strength (and always finding the simplest route to the next movement, for a streamlined effect).
One of my colleagues described Lang’s dances as painterly, and I would add to her description two qualities of JLD dancers and movement that work in tandem: elongated lines and geometric shapes derived from a classical ballet vocabulary, fleshed out by curves and sweeps, derived from a classical modern vocabulary.
“Thousand Yard Stare”, the first larger work on the program, was set to the adagio movement of a Beethoven string quartet. As inferred from its title and several markers throughout, “Thousand Yard Stare” explored themes of war (the term “thousand-yard stare” has been used, probably since World World I, to describe to the vacant gaze of a battle-weary soldier).
The full company entered the stage, clad in olive-drab trousers, with a marching, weight-shifting pattern that occasionally accelerated into a layered, stomping rhythmic sequence - very effective both in its precise execution and in the silent theater. The intricate stepping patterns were danced, like other choreography throughout the evening, as though they were incredibly simple. A strong suit of the performers, and perhaps also of Lang’s choreography, is that everything appears distilled down to the most essential movements of leg and limb.
Both the formations and variations on a theme of marching took clear inspiration from military drills, and were also the more interesting and successful invocations of the war theme throughout the dance. More literal were army crawls underneath a line of dancers in downward dog and dancers slung limply across the shoulders of others, inevitably evoking the casualties of war.
The group, in formation, took turns sinking down into grand plies in parallel first position- a difficult task, and an impressive display of physical strength and strength of will (obvious parallels can be drawn to combat here). They formed one long line lying down, nestled into each others’ bodies, spooning. Dancer Kana Kimura was spun, several times, held at the waist, so that her limbs gathered centrifugal force, flying out effortlessly from her partner’s center.
“Thousand Yard Stare” contained many individual points of interest, but also contained some less interesting or obvious, and often-repeated, references to war. I enjoyed the opening marching sequences and the return to those in the end, but it was the rest for me that meandered away from a varied exploration of the dance’s subject matter.
Maybe it is even the subject matter itself that is difficult to explore through dance. Given that both battle and dance involve physical experiences, perhaps an exploration of one with the other can only offer an experience with similar physical motifs, motifs that leave less room for interpretation; I felt some similar reservations about Shapiro and Smith’s war-evoking “Bolero”, on RDT’s Brio program in 2016.
It does feel callous to dismiss work that aims to tackle difficult subject matter, and I do not wish to say that war should not be addressed in dance (from reading the Tribune’s preview of JLD’s performance, I understand that Lang worked with veterans and their stories in conjunction with making “Thousand Yard Stare” - bridging such a connection between two often disparate communities is absolutely commendable). For this reason, I should say I am excited to see Kurt Jooss’ “The Green Table” live for the first time, when Ballet West performs it in April. Though made in 1932, “The Green Table” engages with those who call us to war in the first place, exploring themes of war, and death, without scenes of literal combat on stage.
“The Calling”, an excerpt of Lang’s larger work “Splendid Isolation II”, is frequently depicted in JLD marketing so I was thrilled to finally see it performed. Though it ended before I wished it to, the dance is a lovely vignette featuring one female dancer (Kimura on Friday night) in a long white skirt, so long that a team of people accompany her onstage to set it up.
Kimura contracted, touched her abdomen, extended an arm out with a Martha Graham-like hand, firm but charged, at its end. Lush reaches outward and simple, elegant turns of her head were abruptly punctuated.
When Kimura kneeled, the skirt folded inward, giving the illusion she was shrinking as her legs disappeared beneath it. As she pivoted, the skirt twisted and wrapped around her, gaining pleats as she turned.
Only once did Kimura diverge from her stationary stance. Lifting her skirt with one hand and her leg into a low arabesque, she defied what we had come to know as her world in the short time we experienced it. By the end of the dance, she had returned to her stationary pivot point, both feet firmly planted, but I was left wondering if there were more to this within the context of the larger work, or if Lang was purposely tantalizing us with just this small taste of freedom.
The closing work, “Tesseracts of Time”, was an epic journey through a series of realms, again employing the entire company. The metallic hammering of David Lang’s “Anvil Chorus” ushered in the first universe, the dancers clad in various black unitards buzzing frenetically below a projection of a yet-unidentified metal object.
Lang’s dances tend to appear propelled by their musical scores (most often in a good way), and this first section, “Under”, definitely did. Informed by minimalism and modernism, (David) Lang’s abstract, percussive score seemed to strip (Jessica) Lang’s choreography of its balletic sensibility altogether, the dancers moving fluidly through identities of several modern dance pioneers.
The projection screen then came all the way down, ushering in the next section, “In”, and revealing the results of an intriguing collaboration with architect Steven Holl. Surprising and mesmerizing, what looked at first like a live dancer lying atop a large sculpture was actually a to-scale video projection of that same scene. Appearing on, in, and between the sculpture’s many complicated facets, the dancers in the video defied gravity and reality.
At times a live dancer framed the projection, standing off to the side. It was unclear the relationship we were supposed to mine between the video and the stage, however, as the live dancers were always in shadow, lit only faintly by the blue light of the projection.
A striking moment in the video was dancer Eve Jacobs (a former high school classmate of mine from North Carolina School of the Arts) atop a whorl of the sculpture, promenading regally in attitude - a music box ballerina trapped in an Escher-esque universe.
Moving forward to “On”, the video screen flew up and away, revealing several white sculptures resembling origami across the upstage area. At first, the dancers seemed to fit less naturally into these real-life sculptures than their video counterparts into the virtual ones; moments such as when all the dancers peered out of one hollowed-out sculpture like prairie dogs solidified a connection to their real-life surroundings.
Color began to be introduced to a formerly black-and-white world: the cyc changed to orange, and then to blue; the dancers added orange swaths to their once-black, now-white unitards; pink light was cast upon the now-suspended white sculptures. The larger color changes evoked a journey from midnight to dawn, but the dancers quickly shed their orange swaths.
Jacobs remained solely in white throughout, and seemed to serve as an anchor, a stalwart central presence, foreshadowed, perhaps, by her video-counterpart’s promenade. Once all other dancers had returned to white, they surrounded Jacobs as she balanced first in an angular penchee, then in a la seconde (she had also shown her balancing chops in an attitude en releve shortly before).
Yet another return had the cyc change back to black, losing the vibrant colors of dawn. The white-clad cast ended the dance in a rather Apollonian tableau (the Balanchine ballet, not the philosophical concept), Jacobs at its center.
While the four individual sections of “Tesseracts of Time” were complex and visually stimulating, I struggled to find a compelling thread that ran through all four, aside from the most basic - architectural elements and the dancers’ relationship to such. Though, with Lang’s adept vocabulary and her dancers’ technical grasp, I enjoyed “Tesseracts” for the ever-changing epic that it was (“Tesseracts” brought to mind Schlemmer’s “Triadic Ballet”, due in part to the score and also to the central and ever-shifting use of costumes and props, not always employed as heavily in contemporary ballet which is often primarily about the body).
Like the rest of the evening’s program, “Tesseracts” was danced incredibly well. While ballet companies always look fabulous in Lang’s choreography, seeing her own dancers perform her work was a different experience entirely. Her dancers’ often-dual sensibilities, many having spent significant time in the worlds of both ballet and modern dance, further illuminate the dynamic range and clarity of her movement.
I hope JLD comes through Utah again. Downtown Eccles Theater, I’m looking at you…
*I want to note, for anyone reading this who may have been in attendance on Friday night, that Jessica Lang is, in fact, one of many female choreographers in this country, rather than one of only a few, as indicated in a pre-curtain speech. Perhaps it was intended to say that she is one of a few successful female choreographers. In which case: while female choreographers may be underrepresented in the programming of larger companies/theaters/organizations, there are myriad female choreographers working in many cities, receiving vary degrees of recognition or success. It is commendable that Lang has had such success, and it is well-deserved, but her successes do not reflect a dearth of female choreographers in dance. For a more comprehensive list of current American female choreographers, check back on the blog in the near future.
Amy Falls is loveDANCEmore’s program coordinator. She also works for the University of Utah's School of Dance, her alma mater.