Dance History: Pearl Lang

Photo by Martha Swope, courtesy of Dance Magazine archive

Like a pearl, an artist who can devote herself equally to performing, choreographing and teaching is uniquely rounded. Pearl Lang (1921–2009) was just such a person, and she made no hierarchical distinctions in her three-pronged career. Lang's devotion to her craft led her to become one of the mid-century's most heralded modern dancers and choreographers, famous for fusing contemporary dance with Jewish culture, and an impassioned teacher who carried on Martha Graham's technique for three decades. Among those who developed through her ministrations are former Boston Ballet Artistic Director Bruce Marks, former Graham principal Christine Dakin, choreographer Pina Bausch, Eliot Feld and even Madonna. Prominent companies like Dutch National Ballet, Boston Ballet and Batsheva Dance Company have performed her original works.


Lang's gravitation to dance began at age 4, while watching the Isadora Duncan Dance Company perform. The Chicago native made her first dance at age 10. Though her mother never wished her daughter to become a dancer, Lang's affinity for movement in combination with music sprang from her Jewish heritage, which her parents made an integral part of her upbringing.

At 17, Lang was enrolled in the University of Chicago's gifted children's program, where she was first introduced to Graham's style. Eager to study directly with the modern dance pioneer, Lang moved to New York City at 19 and was accepted into Graham's company within months. In 1949, dance critic John Martin boldly suggested that Lang should perform the lead in Errand into the Maze, which Graham created for herself. Graham did not take to Martin's suggestion, but she did create nine roles for Lang, including Deaths and Entrances (1943) and Appalachian Spring (1944). Lang also appeared on Broadway, starring in Carousel, Finian's Rainbow and Peer Gynt.

In 1952, she established The Pearl Lang Dance Theater, because Graham wasn't willing to bill another choreographer on her stage. The first work that brought Lang accolades was Shirah (1960), in which she danced the role of a biblical princess. (Like her mentor, Lang was the star and her work mostly featured female characters.) Though Lang's narrative style sprang from the Graham technique, her movement quality and dancing was more lyrical and rounded. Former company member and dance writer Gus Solomons jr described her style as “ecstatic" and “girlish." As Lang developed as a choreographer, she increasingly sought out Jewish themes, which served as inspiration for almost half of her 60 works. She spent three decades developing her full-evening dance drama, The Possessed (1975), which tells the story of a Jewish bride who is possessed by a disembodied spirit. In 2001, her company performed its last season at The Kaye Playhouse.

Pearl Lang teaching at the Folkwang School. Photo by Martha Swope, courtesy of Dance Magazine archive.

Although Lang embarked on an independent choreographic career, she never disassociated herself from the Graham company. From 1952 until the late 1970s, she performed with the Graham company as a guest artist. “Of all those that left the fold, Pearl was always allowed to come back," says former principal Graham dancer Susan McLain. After Graham retired from the stage, Lang took over seven of her principal roles, including Clytemnestra and Herodiade. Her ability to perform Graham's harrowingly difficult solos in her late 40s without a leg tremor, says former Graham principal dancer Peter London, derived from her analytical approach to movement. “She would break the most difficult material into steps" and practice them repeatedly, he says.

This ability contributed to Lang's renown as a Graham teacher. She taught at Yale, Neighborhood Playhouse, Juilliard and Graham's School of Contemporary Dance, where she remained until her death. Lang served as a direct link to Graham's dramatic working style of the 1940s. London recalls one particularly memorable class where Lang began yelling “Thieves! Robbers! Liars! Criminals!" Office workers above the classroom rushed to her aid, thinking she was in danger. But Lang's outburst was aimed at a dancer's lackluster triplets. It was “her way of teaching you how to be dramatic on the stage," says London.

In her latter years, Lang further connected to her Jewish roots by developing, with her second husband, actor Joseph Wiseman, a community of artists and intellectuals who celebrated Jewish culture. Meanwhile, she was recognized in the dance community with numerous honors, including a doctorate from Juilliard, an induction into Dance Library of Israel's Hall of Fame and American Dance Festival's 2001 “Chair for Distinguished Teaching." On February 24, 2009, Lang passed away at age 87 while recovering from hip surgery. Her intention was to get back to her favorite place, the dance studio.

Additional Resources

ARTICLES

“Jewish Dancers in America," by Judith Brin Ingber, Jewish-American History and Culture: An Encyclopedia, 1992

“Pearl Lang," by Joan Timmis Strasbaugh, Jewish Women's Archive

“Pearl Lang and The Choreography of Prayer," by Judith Brin Ingber, The Jewish Week, March 11, 2009

BOOKS

Deep Song: The Dance Story of Martha Graham, by Ernestine Stodelle, Schirmer G Books, 1984

The Life and Work of Martha Graham, by Agnes De Mille, Random House, 1956

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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