Jessica Lang Dance: Catch It Where You Can

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While still a young company in its fifth year, Jessica Lang Dance, on tour in Seattle this November, displayed a cohesion of artistry that belied its “youth.” Perhaps due to an intense touring schedule where the company spends much of its time on the road and not at home in New York City, the nine dancers worked together onstage as if they had been born into this company. In fact, the movement quality of each dancer was so similar, that at times they seemed merely one dancer, copied eight times, regardless of gender. This seeming “anonymity” played well into Lang’s choreography, where the structure and theme of each work took the highest importance.

Thousand Yard Stare by Jessica Lang Dance Co. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.
Thousand Yard Stare by Jessica Lang Dance Co. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

The opening work, Solo Bach (2008), was a joyful romp. Though it was the least demanding intellectually of all the evenings’ pieces, this did not detract from its impact. Solo Bach was movement for movement’s sake, elegantly classical and constantly evolving in a playful swirl that covered the entire stage. Patrick Coker’s solidly compact core (more a technical description than physical) allowed for his limbs to expand and contract quickly and easily, a sprite cavorting at daybreak. Too complex to be the mere “ditty” it might seem upon a first superficial glance, Solo Bach was light in just the right way.

In Sweet Silent Thought (2016), Lang interwove her choreography with an original score by Jakub Ciupinski that included snippets of Shakespearean sonnets, musings on the passage of time, and love filtered through a lens of mortality. The monochromatic palette and atmospheric score supported both the somber and the wistful moments. A white clad Jammie Walker entered first against the grey cyclorama, constrained within a bubble of white light that expanded as his strong, self-assured movements took up more and more space across the stage. Julie Fiorenza’s elegant solo led into evolving moments of partnership against the spoken word of the sonnets. Sweet Silent continued to fluidly unfold in this manner, the choreography developing into moments of unusual solo and partnering work, with a movement vernacular of clean lines without a trace of hypermobility or other overdone “tricks.” Almost mesmerizing, dancers spiraled together and apart as Sweet Silent gradually built in intensity, a simmering pot slowly coming to boil.

Thousand Yard Stare by Jessica Lang Dance Co. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.
Thousand Yard Stare by Jessica Lang Dance Co. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Watching Lang’s 1000 Yard Stare (2016) was particularly poignant viewed on Veteran’s Day. Based on conversations between Lang and veterans, Stare began starkly with dancers running onstage into a harshly defined square of light. Military step-like pounding of feet provided the only noise, as dancers executed the steps, their muscles tense and backs stiff. The music began, creating a cascade of softening in lighting and energy. Lang’s floorwork and the dancers’ execution had an oddly haunting feel, floating and quiet at such a low level. Each moment felt heavily shaded with nuanced meaning, private layers that Lang didn’t necessarily wish to divulge, much like the veterans’ artwork interwoven into the backs of the dancers costumes—never fully seen by the audience, only glimpsed. Memorable moments were an organically pulsing caterpillar of bodies, and lighting that threw enormous shadows of the dancers up against the backdrop and proscenium. Stare unwound to end much as it began, but with greater torso fluidity, almost with a unheard tension-relieving sigh to transform the mechanical back into the human.

Seattle audiences have had access to Lang’s 2006 The Calling (excerpt from Splendid Isolation II) from recent stagings at PNB. However, sandwiched among an evening of Lang’s choreography and danced by Lang’s company at the smaller Meany Hall space, the work seemed more intimate and less isolated. (Side note: PNB is performing Lang’s Her Door to the Sky in March.) Kana Kimura’s épaulement and port de bras were boneless in execution of this signature Lang solo; she fluidly articulated every upper body joint successively. The massively long, draping white skirt functioned dually as costume and sculptural element, hiding Kimura’s legs and highlighting her expressive torso and arms—a marbled Grecian statue. The audience gasped aloud as she executed a smooth pirouette-ing movement that pulled in the edges of the skirt, making the material dance—shrinking its circumference against the surrounding darkness.

Tesseracts of Time by Jessica Lang Dance Co. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.
Tesseracts of Time by Jessica Lang Dance Co. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Tesseracts of Time (2015), a collaboration with architect and UW graduate Steven Holl, was a multi-layered work that both juxtaposed and combined the ephemeral quality of dance with the enduring nature of architecture. Enormous set pieces helped define the sections of the work: Under, In, On, and Over. Fragmented parts of a tesseract (pictured here) were suspended over the dancers, projected high up on the cyc, and interwoven with a video that interacted with the live action. Costuming was used to fragment the dancers’ bodies throughout: black costumes against a black background “hid” torsos and legs, highlighting the exposed flesh; asymmetrical pants and sleeves splintered limbs; slashes of color attached to different parts of the costume floated in space as the dancers ran, warping common shapes.

Lang’s choreography in Tesseracts felt unpredictable, especially in patterning, but also highly organic—the dancers often pulling together and pushing apart from each other and from the ground. The “In” section featured the most startling moment—video projections became a backdrop/set piece for the dancers in front of the stage-filling screen. The quality of the video work (dancers filmed against a green screen with larger-than-life tesseract sections edited in) added to this startling effect—the two-dimensional dancers on screen appeared very lifelike. Just as the unreality of a body supported upon a two-dimensional image became clearer, a live dancer stepped into the light at its base, mirroring the image on video. Tesseracts was heavily layered conceptually, but still easily visually accessible.

Tesseracts of Time by Jessica Lang Dance Co. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.
Tesseracts of Time by Jessica Lang Dance Co. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Every work on the program begged for further viewing. The meticulous detail Lang wove into each piece created layers of meaning, a veneer of simplicity over well-honed craftsmanship. The Friday, November 11th audience at UW’s Meany Hall seemed to appreciate this: standing ovation at intermission followed by a loud, excited buzz that filled the theater and continued until the lights went dim again; unrestrained, vocal bursts of pleasure; another standing ovation at the end of the performance; and what appeared to be a larger than normal crowd that stayed for the post-show Q & A with Lang. Hopefully Jessica Lang Dance will return to PNW audiences soon.

For the 2016-17 season, Jessica Lang Dance hits the West Coast only one more time in Los Angeles in February, otherwise, visit their website to sign up for JLD’s email newsletter to keep apprised of next season’s touring schedule.