Jessica Lang in Park City

Saturday April 5 marked the final performance of the Eccles Center Main Stage Season in Park City featuring Jessica Lang Dance. The Park City season is a welcome supplement to the performances at Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City. Founded in 2011, JLD is a company of nine dancers based in New York City created to present Langʼs choreography. A graduate of The Juilliard School and former member of Twyla Tharpʼs company, Lang has set works on numerous companies including the Birmingham Royal Ballet, The National Ballet of Japan, The Joffrey, and Ailey II.

The concert proved to be, an evening of pleasant dance that did not require the audience to strain their imagination, nor worry that they might experience something challenging, sexy, or gritty like Cedar Lake Balletʼs concert earlier in the season. Performed, produced, staged, and costumed with such clean precision, the eveningʼs offerings seemed to please the local crowd.

Ms. Langʼs movement style suggests classical modern dance in ballet slippers with vocabulary and choreographic devices reminiscent of Taylor, Limón and Humphrey on a balletic base. Lang clearly possesses choreographic skill, and the ability to seamlessly integrate theatrical elements into her staging. However, the overall performance lacked innovation and conceptual development. Likewise, the dancersʼ flawless technical performances of multiple turns, high leaps, elegant extensions, port de bras, and seamless partnering fell short of authentic expression. Instead, the pieces settled into a comfortable no manʼs land of calculated longing, whether for each other, the space around them, or the projected images on the screen.

Her first piece “Lines Cubed” suggested a Mondrian painting in motion with the background divided into bold black lines and white rectangles. The dance utilized manipulable sets designed by Canadians Stephanie Forsythe and Todd MacAllen to redefine the space for each section. While the opening “Black” was crisp in linear boldness and execution, the piece became predictable with the stereotypical interpretation of each ensuing color. The “Red” quintet exhibited power as four men lifted and paraded a woman about the stage. A springy “Yellow” displayed a trio of women flitting and frolicking pleasantly. While “Blue” featured a pas de deux of lovers whose longing was played out as they were separated by dancers and the set. Though the dancers performed their movement with technical acumen, the lack of conceptual exploration was disappointing.

“Mendelssohn/Incomplete” also failed to inspire. While the dancers displayed a strong sense of suspension and release, the choreography meandered aimlessly and failed to make a point. “Among the Stars”, a romantic pas de deux, also failed, encumbered as it was with the manipulation of a long piece of fabric. Additionally, the dancerʼs interactions were sterile, communicating disdain rather than longing.

Perhaps the strongest piece, “The Calling” was originally created for Ailey II. It featured dancer Kana Kimura in a stunning white dress/set piece as she quietly and powerfully evoked an exploration of exaltation and humility. Here Lang found an effective balance between concept, prop, and motion. Using simple innovative gestures, with spirals and level changes, the audience was led through a spiritual journey toward a centered, peaceful soul.

Unfortunately, the choreography in the final portion of the concert did not effectively utilize the technology. In “White,” the angle of the camera never changed, but relied upon the dancers to enter and exit the screen. I wondered why the choreographer bothered to use the camera at all, as the film itself became an elevated stage. The piece quickly devolved into a trite manipulation of time using slow motion and acceleration of the video as the choreographic device. Similarly, the gratuitous passes of Chaplinesque dancers waving at the audience were clichéd. While the dance stimulated chuckles from the viewers, I hungered for the intimate, hyper-kinetic experience good screendance can provide.

Likewise, the flawless film of droplets, waves and splashes of “i.n.k” overwhelmed the choreography. This piece was funded through the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. What began as a promising piece with dancer Kana Kimuraʼs solo creating a striking calligraphic mark on the screen, quickly dissolved into an ensemble work in which the interactions with the film were too cute and banal. I could not help wondering what a more innovative artist might have accomplished in a multi-media dance project with this level of funding.

Overall, Jessica Lang Dance felt like a Jane Austen garden party staged for a Martha Stewart spread on gracious living. While my aesthetic interests are more piqued by art that challenges and moves me, JLD succeeded in providing a concert that adequately entertained the Park City audience.

Karin Fenn is a choreographer, performer and teacher based in Salt Lake City.

Trey McIntyre in Park City

Trey McIntyre’s dance company came to Park City this weekend, giving me the chance to see a group that has been lauded by a large subset of my friends and colleagues. New Yorkers, residents of the project’s former home in Boise, and our very own Kathy Adams of the SL Tribune have sung McIntyre’s praises for innovation, unpretentiousness and approachability.

The opening number this Saturday fit the bill. “The Vinegar Works: Four Dances of Moral Instruction,” drew inspiration from writer and artist Edward Gorey. Set to Shostakovich, this ballet is equal parts “Nightmare Before Christmas” and “The Nutcracker”. It even features a twenty foot tall Death in the role of Mother Ginger. Death looms over his mortal foil (Brett Perry), and periodically births new characters onto the stage from under a long black gown. Ashley Werhun’s manic solo, in a section vaguely evoking incest (“Deranged Cousins”) was the act’s highpoint. I felt like I was watching Shelley Duval at her weirdest, inexplicably dancing ballet. It was a precious moment that felt like adult content, hidden within something that might well have been made for children.

McIntryre’s craft reflects an omnivorous dance-diet where ballet occupies the cereal base of the food pyramid. There’s also a healthy dose of what one might call “classic modern”. When we talk about seeing movement associated with Graham and Humphrey in the current context, we often focus on how technique has shifted, improved or worsened. Contemporary performers are often spoken of with praise by elders, who state that “technique in general” has become “better” and has diversified. Indeed, these dancers too, had chops. However, there’s something odd, which I’d never quite noticed before, about seeing “contractions” and “fall and recovery” completely drained of their political context–– both macro (how these legacies relate to the world at large) and micro (how they function within the “story” of [post]modern dance). Here, McIntyre provides an eery but thought-provoking perspective I don’t think a modern dance group (or a European ballet company) could have given me.

Even more diverse in its stylistic influences, yet less successful was “Mercury Half-Life”. This hour-and-fifteen-minute work occupied the post-intermission act. McIntyre was determined to use the music of Queen to prove something Twyla Tharp and others have also confirmed–– Americans like big, ballsy ballet danced to the broadly popular rock-and-roll. This work was simply far, far too long. The costuming–– the women in Halloween nurse uniforms and the men in some illegible male version there of–– was at best confusing. The onslaught of sound and movement contained moments of virtuosic promise, but almost no choreographic development, no real pattern or theme emerging in my viewing experience save a nagging sense of vicarious embarrassment.

Samuel Hanson writes frequently for SLUG, 15 Bytes and lovedancemore.