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Jessica Lang Pulls the Plug on Her Company

February 14, 2019

It would be easy — and simple minded — to portray Bessie Award-winning choreographer Jessica Lang’s decision to close Jessica Lang Dance on April 30, 2019, as equal to a solar eclipse. After all, the galaxy of challenges faced by even highly successful artistic directors of dance companies devoted to a single artist’s work is daunting. When stories involve companies whose reviews consistently pay tribute to unique talent and whose finances are stable, the news tempts sensationalist headlines.

But nuanced understanding of Lang’s choice to disband after seven years and return to work as an independent choreographer reveals her next move is more akin to the moon’s lunar phases. Whether a slim, curved crescent or a rotund, brilliant-white orb, the moon and, metaphorically, Lang, are luminescent, cyclical, always about to become a shape other than the one they are presently.

Bringing a four-piece, evening-length program to the Bay Area during the company’s final season (Feb. 23 in San Jose; Feb 28 – March 2 in San Francisco), Lang in a phone interview spoke about music, dancers, the history of works on the program, and the decision made in cooperation with the board, advisors, dancers, colleagues, friends, and others to bring JLD to a close.

On the program are Lyric Pieces (2012), music by Edvard Grieg; The Calling (2006), music by Trio Mediaeval; Thousand Yard Stare (2016), music by Beethoven, and the West Coast premiere of This Thing Called Love (2018), music by Tony Bennett, including the song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Lyric Pieces and Thousand Yard Stare will be performed with live music: respectively, Bay Area pianist Sarah Cahill and a string quartet comprising four members of One Found Sound.

The program has a unique arc: Grieg to Trio Mediaeval to Beethoven to Tony Bennett in song and voiceover. What do these musical selections reveal about you as a choreographer or about your works’ relationship to music?

Ultimately, I always believe music is as important as the movement. Starting a new work, I look for ideas I call “winks.” Something that catches my eye that tells me, I want to make a dance.

My relationship with music started when I was very young and my parents took me to the ballet. The orchestra pit took my attention more than what was onstage. I started violin at age five and played for ten years. I liked to play, but I didn’t like to be heard, seen. I hated silence. But interestingly, I loved taking dance. Moving my body was a different, freeing experience. (Lang is a former member of Twyla Tharp’s company THARP!)

I love all genres. Because my musical choice starts with concepts, that allows me to investigate different kinds of sounds. If I choose something like the big beautiful skirt that’s the centerpiece and initiation to The Calling, for that I found the hauntingly beautiful voices and seamless humming of Trio Mediaeval. Thousand Yard Stare is set to the Adagio movement from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15. The theme of war, I struggled with. I didn’t want violent accompaniment to the visual, that’s what led me to investigate classical music for a juxtaposition.

The Beethoven is a masterpiece, the type of music I never wanted to touch. But after researching and reading about the background of that score — his facing the inevitability of death and the hope he’d survive — that was a crossover to these people who fought for our country and the life of someone in the military. The music embraced the theme and was the supportive sound for the dance I wanted to create.

If the music for a ballet is thought of as a dancer or character with influence on the ballet’s tone, mood, degree of drama or abstraction, what words describe the music’s role for each work on the program?

That’s an intriguing question: For Calling, hauntingly beautiful. Lyric, charmingly elegant. Thousand Yard Stare, there are two sides: hope and fear. The music is poignant, like the character you wait for in the movie who carries the turning point. It has so much meaning you can’t help but feel its gentleness, powerfulness. That dichotomy. This Thing is vibrantly classical, debonair.

In what ways does the program challenge or reward the audience?

If you’re a newcomer to contemporary dance, it doesn’t overwhelm you. You won’t feel run over by a lack of knowledge; it’s welcoming in that way. If you’re highly skilled in the dance field, you’ll appreciate the craft, the attention to detail.

I often hold talkbacks after performances. Audience members consistently raise their hands and tell me the dances left them full of joy. With Thousand Yard Stare, they’re moved, with Lyric they enjoy the visuals, with Tony, it’s not a fluff ball piece and they feel good. Another gauge? I sit in the audience and observe people watching my work. They become a mirror for me when I create my next work. Where are we in society and where am I? What do I want to say next?

What were your priorities as you selected the works for your final season and will you please highlight a unique aspect behind each work?

The presenter tells the agent what they want. I participate and recommend, but everywhere we go, they request certain things. I’m proud of the work I’m bringing to San Francisco. The Calling is a ballet my company has performed so often it feels representative of my dances. The three 20-minute works on the program are diverse in their emotional deliverables and a nice cross section of the 102 ballets I’ve made.

The Calling: I’ve matured in my process, but some things [from 2006] are still my go-to: I keep a book for each piece, knowing what I’m going to do in terms of concepts before I go into the studio. But my movement exploration has expanded exponentially as I have more time and larger budgets. This allows me to take breaths, to really explore ideas before I secure them into a new work.

Lyric Pieces: It’s funny that The Calling and Lyric Pieces are on the same program. The skirt is such a beautiful image, but I started getting tired of that skirt. I proposed other ideas (for making movement with props) and researched the design studio, MOLO. Through my efforts, I found and loved objects they made that I wanted to explore in the studio. The set (accordion-like props used as walls, boxes, a river, and more) was an organic playground for me. What were the structures’ features? But also, I loved moving the pieces around. What kind of story would the props or moving them around reveal? The dancers aren’t stagehands and the props aren’t decoration. What do they create together? What do they become? How do we change their configuration and reveal an image that becomes poetic?

Thousand Yard Stare: I created the physical movement in 15 days. Sometimes that’s misunderstood because while thinking, I can work on a ballet for a year. I spent nine days just playing with ideas. Because of that, I made a lot of movement. I started piecing things together and in six days it was a complete dance. There are less exits than I typically use: almost all of the ensemble are onstage one-hundred percent of the time. I also used silence: I never use silence. I use a rhythm that’s heard in a march that comes out of silence and is truly effective.

This Thing Called Love: With lyrics, you need to find the sincerity of the words and determine how spot on you want to be. That has to be careful, keeping the ideas that mean the most and choosing them for specific reasons. If you’ve done so much to the words, when do you break away from them and find balance?

There can’t be an interview about the Lang company without asking about the dancers. What do you most appreciate?

The more you know a group of people, the more the relationships build. I’m appreciative of their loyalty and taking the work we create very seriously. When I started the company, the Joyce [Institute] chose me to be the recipient of a fellowship. Which meant I could make garbage, make anything. I ended up making the company. That wasn’t what I expected or where I started. It allowed me to have really matured dancers. I didn’t have to teach them how to tour, how to grow. We haven’t had much turnover, but the few we’ve replaced, I chose younger dancers. I wanted them to learn from the dancers, which became our standard to form the company. They’re incredibly talented and equally kind people. We’ve made a very strong bond.

Will you continue to offer your LANGuage workshops and classes and other outreach programs?

I haven’t thought that far. I created LANGuage before I created the company. It’s the way I taught composition. It’s something I’ll continue to share. My dancers have learned the approach; I assume they’ll use it in their own teaching too.

How will the core principles, practices and disciplines applied to your company be reflected in your work going forward?

Most people are surprised about the decision. It was something I did. I approached the board. I told them the last thing I felt I had time to do was create, to make ballets. They agreed. This kind of structure and organization — I know I am not the only one to say it — doesn’t work for me now. There’s a long list of others; everybody knows that Twyla, for example, has gone from having to not having companies. Creating an organization was a huge endeavor I couldn’t have done without a tremendous amount of support, but there’s a different way for me to work in the future.

I started the company to understand a single group of people and working with them. We didn’t lose our funding; our touring list had us employing our dancers for 33–34 (annual) weeks for the last four years. It is just a time for me to focus on creating. That’s who I am. It’s bittersweet. It’s like when a TV show is so good and we don’t want to write a character off. We want the character to fade away, but not lose the next important thing an artist is going to make. I need to go back to just making work.

Does all of that mean a small, independent dance company centered on the work of a sole artist is no longer a sustainable model?

It depends. Everyone has their own experience. I’m not a victim of that situation. I was happy working hard and rising to the challenges. When I’m doing all the things an artistic director does, I’m not thinking [enough] about the creative work. For me, that’s just where I want to turn: How do I take the skills deeper and work with directors who know their craft? I offer a choreographer who also understands audiences, development, fundraising, outreach, education.

I made 70 works for other directors before I started with this company. I’m looking forward to creating rep for them. I have a better understanding of audiences and making their organization come forward, survive, and thrive. I want to help support them and continue to grow as an artist, as opposed to building my own company.

Lou Fancher is a San Francisco Bay Area writer. Her work has been published by WIRED.com, Diablo Magazine, Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, InDance, East Bay Express, Oakland Magazine, SF Weekly, and others.  She is a children's book author, designer and illustrator, with over 50 books in print. Also a choreographer, ballet master and teacher, she coaches professional ballet and contemporary dance companies in the U. S. and Canada.  Visit her website online at www.johnsonandfancher.com.