This Choreographer Is Giving Classical Dance a Modern Makeover

Jessica Lang brings her beautiful artistry to the Music Center this weekend

Jessica Lang, the choreographer and artistic director of Jessica Lang Dance, has been described as “a visual artist whose medium is dance.” It’s a pretty fair assessment if you look at her staging this weekend at the Ahmanson Theatre. Her New York-based company is making its Music Center debut with a four-piece program that uses space—literally—to create “an all-inclusive experience” where “every part of the design is important, not just the dance.”

Lang has choreographed more than 95 works for companies worldwide, from American Ballet Theatre to the National Ballet of Japan. Her own troupe, founded in 2011, tends to blend contemporary dance and ballet, using video projection and focusing on modern themes. We talked to Lang in the middle of a 29-city tour (L.A. is stop number 15) about the program she’s bringing here.

Your piece Tesseracts of Time weaves together dance and the influence of architecture. How does that work?

Well, I’m someone who’s very visual and inspired by the world around me—every aspect of it—and architecture is definitely… You know, there’s something about space and the ability to play within different areas of space. Architecture provides my imagination that kind of spark of excitement.

The commission came from the Harris Theater in Chicago and the City of Chicago for the first ever Architecture Biennial. They wanted to have a collaboration between an architect and a different art form, and dance was a natural fit. I was given this opportunity to work with [world-renowned architect] Steven Holl, and it was Steven who talked a lot about a tesseract—a square is to a cube as a cube is to a tesseract, and that a tesseract exists in a different dimension. Those are the fragments of a tesseract that he included in the stage space.


Do the dancers’ movements reflect the architecture? Is it very angular?

I think so. Steven believes that architecture in relation to the ground exists in four different ways: under the ground, in the ground, on the ground, and over the ground. For “under,” it feels like the mechanics, like the unseen part of a building, the pipes, the inner workings of a building. Then “in” the ground, we take you into his spaces through video, like we kind of travel into space with the help of video projection. The dancers are constantly manipulating. The movement is inspired by each thought of “under,” “in,” “on,” and “over.” So it’s angular, but it’s also reflective of how each idea makes me feel. So “under” feels very low to the ground and almost like animal qualities, more sporadic, very physical. “In” is a little bit more beautiful and odd. Then “on” is the first time we see these giant sculptures, these fragments of tesseracts, and the dancers are beginning to explore that onstage. And then for “over,” there’s this idea of a square that changes form with vertical and forward and back motion.


With Thousand Yard Stare, you take audiences in another direction.

That theme is war and those affected by it, most importantly our veterans. So the inspiration was just simply that—it was the humanity and the human person behind the bravery and the courage. I worked with veterans. I had them go through a music therapy session with me, where they would listen to the music, and then I asked them to draw anything that came to their minds. That’s what I do when I’m creating. I wanted to know how they were reacting to this music choice.

And then we took their drawings and made them into textiles and put them on the back of the costumes. So the dancers all carry individual drawings from the veterans on their shirts, kind of as a reminder to everyone that there is a human element. We don’t always know anyone’s story, but we never forget.


Your piece titled The Calling—one dancer in a gorgeous white dress—has an entirely different sensibility, right?

It’s really beautiful. It’s just slow, it’s almost barely there, it’s so simple, it’s reflective, there’s kind of a spiritual sound in the music. I never like to fully define anything, so that people see it for what it is. Some people say, “Oh, it’s a flower dying,” or somebody says, “It’s an angel.” I like to have people see what it is they want to see. It’s just four minutes long but has a long-lasting impression.