Jessica Lang Dance: Classically modern

White Bird gave us a good survey of the work of forward-leaning ballet choreographer Jessica Lang this weekend

This weekend, Jessica Lang Dance, which Lang founded in 2011, visited Portland for the first time. A Juilliard graduate, Lang is a former member of Twyla Tharp’s company, THARP!, and is widely recognized as one of the most talented choreographers of her generation. Though she’s still in the prime of her career, Lang’s CV is stuffed with accomplishments and awards, including her 2014 Bessie Award and her Arison Award in 2017. Outside of her work for JLD, her choreography has been performed by prominent companies around the world, from original compositions for American Ballet Theater and the National Ballet of Japan, to her work on the production of Aida directed by Francesca Zambello for the San Francisco and Washington National opera companies.

As a company, JLD has also accomplished an impressive amount in less than a decade. The mission “to enrich and inspire global audiences by immersing them in the beauty of movement and music” takes them around the world for more than 50 annual performances at some of the most prestigious venues in the performing arts world. As part of that mission, Lang developed the LANGuage program to provide high-quality educational activities in relationship to their programming, both at home in New York with a focus on the Queens community and in cities around the world when they tour.

Jessica Lang Dance visited Portland with a set of six dances, including “The Calling.”/Courtesy of White Bird

The program for this performance was an excellent opportunity to survey the range of Lang’s choreography and the strengths of the company. Like Lang’s career, the show covered a lot of ground in a short time. The six separate pieces represent original compositions by Lang from 2006 to 2017, demonstrating the span of motifs and themes that have defined Lang’s choreography since before JLD up to some of her most current work developed specifically for the company.

2012’s Lines Cubed opened the show with sharp, simple set design and a severe soundtrack with a stutter-step rhythm that carried through the four movements in the piece: Black, Red, Yellow, Blue, and All . Collapsible paper dividers cut the stage into a set of rectangles like a printer’s layout that framed the steady work of the company.

The opening passage and Black featured the whole ensemble, and the movement in these two sections were great introductions to the overall character of JLD. They land solidly in the mainstream of New York contemporary dance companies with serious classical chops and smart handling of the modern and post-structuralist legacy left by such choreographers as Trisha Brown and Tharp. No one could accuse JLD of being anything less than energetic, yet they don’t lead with a sense of pizzazz or acrobatics. Music is integral to the choreography, yet it’s used as a framework to deconstruct and respond to as often as it is danced to in a traditionally lyrical way.

As Lines Cubed developed, it demonstrated what I think Deborah Jowitt was getting at when she said Lang “has an architect’s eye-not just in terms of the structures she builds with moving bodies, but through her use of objects and scenic elements.” The paper dividers that the dancers expand, shift, and contract act as the most visible structure that the piece builds and manipulates, but through each movement we see how color, the soundtrack, the costuming, and a range of movement vocabularies also come into play as their own mechanics in the complex structure that the piece builds and moves through.

The next piece, Solo Bach kept up the momentum but took the tone in an entirely different direction—it’s a simple, spare, and joyful solo piece set to Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partitas. In this piece, Lang’s structural play worked at a more focused, personal level, between the running exuberance of the violinist and the dancers leaping, balletic exploration of the stage.

Glow finished the first half of the night. Created in 2017, it was both the newest piece of the night and the most futuristic-looking. A single, bright tube of programmable LEDs rose through the air across the stage like it had been drawn there in a single swipe of some magic, electronic pen. A different soloist each night was supported by four other dancers in neon-yellow sneakers. These worked well as misdirection to make it that much more unexpected when the soles of the solists’s shoes lit up at the same time the LED tube changed colors to match.

The Calling opened the second half of the show, and it was just gorgeous. The earliest and perhaps most well-known piece in the program, The Calling was choreographed in 2006, set to a haunting choral work by Trio Mediaeval. This piece is the source of the poster image for this tour—a different soloist each night stands in the middle of the stage wearing an enormous, flowing white dress that spreads out perhaps twenty feet across. Back to the audience when the curtain goes up, the dancer turns to face us, creating a spiral in the fabric that remains as a significant visual component of the piece.

It’s worth noting that, although the promotional images showed Kana Kimura in the dress, the night I attended it featured a male dancer for this piece. This is the most visible expression of how all the structural play in these pieces cuts through the relatively crude structure of conventional gender dynamics. With the exception of the physical requirements of some of the lifts and spins, all the dancers seem to work on equal footing as they embody Lang’s many complex choreographic structures.

Jammie Walker performed The Calling on the night I saw. Based on the low whispers I heard in the audience, I think he would have earned generous applause if he had just stood there and flexed his muscles, since he apparently is made of freshly cut marble rather than mere human flesh. I’m sure Kana Kimura’s performance the night before was equally impressive, given her poise in the Red section of Lines Cubed.

Sweet Silent Thought (2016) and Thousand Yard Stare (2016) finished up the show. The mechanics of how the troupe works together to create and inhabit progressions of motifs and structures were on full display in these two pieces. Sweet Silent Thought works very well as a segue to the more complex final piece, as it uses fewer dancers and revolves around readings of Shakespeare’s sonnets in a way similar to Lang’s approach to Solo Bach and The Calling, though they responded to their musical soundtrack.

By the time we got to Thousand Yard Stare, we’d had a masterclass in the language of how these dancers interact, combine, and recombine. While the opening act may have been as physically complex, this final act seemed like the tightest and most mechanical. That’s not to insinuate that it was dry or uninspired in any way—it’s mechanical in the way that Bach builds sublime and surprising moments out of complexity. Likewise, there were moments that seemed to directly reference contemporary composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, using simple structures, repetition, and rhythm to evoke a trancelike quality in the movement.

Individual dancers had plenty of opportunities to demonstrate their talents, but never by showboating. The gasps from the audience came at moments when we had been following the structures the whole company was negotiating, only to see them dissolve into unexpected, fluid acrobatics before moving on to the next formation. To me this is a sign of a choreographer who really knows her medium.

Dance shares a language with the daily habit of moving our irrational bodies through space, and Lang is able to say some profound and exciting things in this language that come through loud and clear without the need for words or explanation. (But, of course, we critics will still try to point at them in our own way.)

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