A Conversation with Jessica Lang

Here, JLD dancers perform i.n.k.; above, Lang (center) at work.

After dancing with Twyla Tharp for only two years, post-college, Jessica Lang knew she no longer wanted to perform. “I realized, ‘I have to keep repeating the same piece and touring, and I’m tired,’” she says. “I just wanted to create.” At first, she reached out to ballet schools and smaller companies (utilizing her classical ballet background), and American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company became her first freelance gig. Over the next decade, she amassed scores of commissions: Pennsylvania Ballet and Kansas City Ballet, as well as her alma mater Juilliard. In 2011, she started her own company.

Next month, the Jessica Lang Dance company will premiere Tesseracts of Time, a collaboration with noted architect Steven Holl, at the Harris Theater in Chicago.

On collaborating with an architect “One of Steven’s biggest theories in architecture is: under, in, on and over—all in relationship to the ground. So we want the piece to be about 20 minutes long, with four different movements of five minutes each. It’s very simple in its mathematics. His favorite composers have architectonics in their structure of music—John Cage, Morton Feldman—so each section will have a different composer who has influenced him. We’ll have set pieces that will be introduced in the third movement. They’re being designed by Steven and will be a broken-down tesseract [four-dimensional version of the cube].”

On freelancing versus directing her own company “I was starting to feel like I was the guest in everyone’s home, and that doesn’t allow me to dive too deeply into who I am as an artist. It was always about creating for the company that I was working for—those dancers, that situation, what that artistic director wanted of me. I felt lost. In order for me to create, I had to have a commission. Now I have the opportunity to come home to something, and that allows me, when I go to a different company, to enjoy being the guest.”

On process “With my own company, I definitely improvise. It comes out like a sentence in my head; I just put movement together and then turn around and watch what I did and adjust it on the dancers. When I go to a company [as a guest choreographer], I’ll have the entire company in front of me so I can cast. I won’t improvise in front of those 70 dancers. It’s not a good use of time. After casting’s done, I’ll work individually with the dancers. I never paint before the paint colors are in front of me—because then I’ll want to paint a rainbow, and you walk in and the color of the room is gray.” DT


Training: BFA from The Juilliard School

Performance: member of Twyla Tharp’s THARP! (1997–99)

Choreography: more than 85 works for companies including Joffrey Ballet, National Ballet of Japan, Birmingham Royal Ballet; founded Jessica Lang Dance in 2011


Photos from top: by Karli Cadel; by Sharen Bradford; both courtesy of Lang

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