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Theater & Dance

Interview: Jessica Lang on Her Big Dream for Dance, Collaboration, and Staying Power

Ahead of her company's performance at the Winspear Opera House Saturday night, we talked with Lang about the importance of artistic collaboration and why there aren't more females in the choreography field.

Jessica Lang, a lithe, soft-spoken blonde, started dancing when she was three, and took it seriously at 14. She went to Juilliard, dabbled in choreography. She got into Twyla Tharp’s company, Tharp!, her senior year, and got to dance for a living. That was supposed to be the dream.

Lang toured with Tharp! for two years. It was exciting, she says, for about the first six months. “And then I realized what was different between my education and actually the profession, you don’t keep changing what you’re doing. You keep repeating what you’re doing. And I am not a repetitive person in that respect,” Lang says. “And I realized this was not the career for me. Being a dancer was not what I wanted. I became really unhappy.”

She stuck it out, because you don’t tell Twyla Tharp that you’re not happy. The company folded a year and a half later. It was a blessing in disguise, beginning the road to Jessica Lang Dance. Next step: entering the Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s first choreographic competition for Hubbard Street II, its junior company.

“All you had to do was send in a work that was 10 minutes long and say why you wanted the experience,” Lang says.

Two people won the Hubbard Street II competition—Robert Battle, now the artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and Lang. Her new career as a choreographer snowballed. Since 1999, she’s finished 83 works for dozens of companies across the country, such as the Pennsylvania Ballet, the Kansas City Ballet, the Cincinnati Ballet, the San Jose Ballet, the Richmond Ballet, the Milwaukee Ballet, the Washington Ballet. And the list goes on.

“It starts to get humorous that I’ve done so much across the country that I started to feel that way. In 2011,I was like, ‘What’s my goal? To make a dance on every ballet company in existence? Is that a goal to have?’ At the same time, I was feeling like I was repeating myself,” Lang says. “I was feeling slightly uninspired and I wondered what it would be like to make dance on the same group of people, returning back to the same group of people, putting together a group of dancers that I trusted who I felt did my work the way I wanted to see my work done.”

Lang still accepts commissions, but now she has a home, a place where she could start thinking of herself as an artist, rather than simply thinking about the work, the dancers, and the company she was creating for. Ahead of her company’s performance at the Winspear Opera House Saturday night, we talked about the importance of artistic collaboration and why there aren’t more females in the choreography field.

FrontRow: Can you talk about what’s happening at the Winspear and how your collaboration with Japanese photographer Shinichi Maruyama came about?

Jessica Lang: One of the things that doesn’t really interest me is just pure dance. Like, just dance. Just dance. It’s beautiful, and I do that, but I do like to have…there’s so much more to explore with objects and collaborations and music. Whether it’s music or visual art or sculpture. So the Japanese visual artist Shinichi, I’m completely inspired by his work and we use his art through projections…and it’s like an interactive. The dancers, the audience sees the whole picture, and the dancers are part of that background and foreground. It’s coordinated on purpose, and I have a commissioned score for that piece from Jakub Ciupinski, and he made the music through all kinds of splashing sounds of water. That was a really collaborative collective come together from all different aspects…I just love that. I think it’s really important to have this interaction between artists.

The other major work that we’re performing is called Lines Cubed. And that also has a collaborative partnership with an interior design company called Molo. And Molo is…if you had a large open space, you could buy them for your living room. They’re on sale, these paper walls. and they come from one foot to 12 feet tall…so we have this piece “Lines Cubed” that helps us define lines and color around Piet Mondrian’s artwork. and it becomes this three dimension visual art that happens to have people on stage dancing.

FR: Do you seek out the artists?

JL: Sometimes it’s coincidence how I meet who I meet. For sure Shinichi was a coincidental meeting. We happened to live in the same building [in New York] and I invited him…after I found out who he was, I invited him to see my work at the Joyce [Theater]. He responded with, ‘I would love to collaborate with you if you’d like.’ That was my goal, but I didn’t want to approach without him seeing what level I was at and how serious I was.

FR: What are you looking forward to? Is this something you can see yourself doing for awhile?

JL: Yeah.  You’re building something. Being in this business, I see people starting companies because they have nothing else to do or they’re not getting work elsewhere. They don’t necessarily have a vision to what they’re actually creating. It fails, it closes, two year, it’s done. It’s a hard thing to start a company, it takes full absolute commitment. Because I’m a single choreographer…it’s a single vision. I’m not forming a rep company…We need support, of course, who doesn’t, but I’m not searching for other choreographers to make this company work. And if it doesn’t work, then it’s okay too. But i just really wanted to try my hand at it and just see.

FR: And how would you describe your vision?

JL: What is the plan? That we grow, that we develop, myself, the dancers. I see a difference from when we first started two years ago to now, how the dancers, who they are, the more that they dance together, the more powerful the statement. They’ll be more cohesive, the trust will get bigger, their love will get bigger for each other, and we’ll grow together.

There’s the big vision, the dream of having a space and a school, making a real impact on the field. This was never a personal, selfish kind of desire. It’s not, “Oh, I need to have my company because I need to see my work. It’s like, ‘Let’s do this because I think we could transport audiences into their imagination and see the world differently.’ Beauty of movement and music together. It’s simply that. And then educate and cultivate new audiences.

FR: How would you place yourself in context with other choreographers, within American dance?

JL: I can say that there aren’t many females doing this. Not with a focus on ballet. I think there’s such a more balanced presence of gender in modern dance. And I think it’s getting really lost in conversation when directors think it’s that there’s no female presence. There is. I actually think there’s no female presence strictly in ballet. That’s where…and I think that it has something to do with the curriculum, the intense training, and there’s like 30 little girls and maybe one boy in a little ballet class, all through America…and somehow these boys get to be the lead. And that just creates confidence. And the girls, who are constantly being….there’s fear, that there’s 29 other kids who want the lead. The competition kind of distracts and destroys the overall awareness of what else can be…what else this career can offer.

You don’t just have to be a dancer. But you also can’t learn to be a choreographer. It’s an innate kind of gift, I think. But we can definitely plant seeds earlier in ballet curriculums so that there’s a creative through line to one’s education and career. Instead of it being…it’s kind of the problem with ballet. It’s all about the perfection of line and technique. “Her feet, her feet are so beautiful—her legs are just an inch too big.” “You know, if she was taller, smaller, thinner, bigger, whichever.” There’s all this focus on the body instead of creativity, and there has to be that focus because that’s also why it is ballet. But i also think instilling some sort of creative class in the ballet curriculum will not destroy the values of ballet. The foundation. It just won’t. It’ll just enhance, for boys and girl, and will create better choreographers—will create [female] choreographers, because they’re not existing in the ballet world.

Photo: Jessica Lang Dance performing Lines Cubed. Dancer artists of Jessica Lang Dance.

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