Nuance takes skill. Nuance is hard. And nuance is beautiful, maybe more beautiful than any series of turns or overhead lift might be. Choreographer Jessica Lang can manipulate movement in a manner that is so nuanced, it is virtuosic.
So I was disturbed by some of the audience commentary I heard during pauses in her company’s program at Northrop Auditorium on Saturday, February 13th, 2016.
The most troubling was when a dissatisfied audience member whispered to her companion, “I’m traditional. I like the Nutcracker. I guess this is really avant garde, but it’s not technically difficult.”
The pair, like many in the house that evening, were out for a special night on the town to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
I can see how some of the program might not have fit with the stereotypical notion of a romantic night at the ballet that many of those on a Valentine’s Day date night might have been expecting. Nonetheless…what? I said nothing to that pair whispering behind me. But, retorts—some Yvonne Rainer-inspired, others straight from the mouth of my once-ballet teacher Carla O’Brien who reminded me not to disregard movement that appears simple after a particularly humbling and revelatory tendu exercise—spun through my head for the rest of the evening.
The clarity with which Lang uses compositional techniques—theme and variation, point and counterpoint, minimalism—and the fact that she incorporates codified modern dance vocabulary give her dances a soothing quality and an intelligent air. Her choreography’s almost academic essence brought me to reflect on the distinction between a movement study and a piece of choreography. Moments of this particular program seemed like the former, and others like the latter, but all merited presentation on a stage. Lang’s movement—which is curious, idiosyncratic, and creative—is mostly independent of the romantic and emotional narratives that often have been projected onto it. Her more recent pieces, which were sprinkled throughout this program, included some exploration of abstraction, though to varying degrees of success.
Lines Cubed, the first piece of the night, was a danced throwback to the mid-century modern. Lang’s choreography summoned up Lester Horton, Martha Graham, José Limón, and Paul Taylor. Much of the movement vocabulary drew from these other choreographers’ idiosyncratic movements, though Lang’s formatting choices reflected the precision and meticulousness for which she has become known. The color scheme and geometric designs in the scenic elements made me think of Mondrian. And the all white white marley floor made the dancers—dressed in streamlined costumes of black, red yellow, and blue—pop as they moved about the stage.
In The Calling and Among the Stars, fabric was integral to the choreography. I enjoyed the seeing how the fabrics—a bright white and very long white dress, and a shimmering, sheer fabric in a long rectangular shape—were affected by movement. Incorporating few, but clearly defined, scenic elements like these gave Lang’s choreography more theatrical impact.
White, a dance film, brought a different aesthetic and nice shift in energy to the evening. In the film, movement phrases performed by dancers dressed in flowing white fabrics were layered onto one another. Movements that were filmed at different times were blended so that the dancers appeared to interact; dancers that hadn’t actually been filmed together leapt over, ran past, rolled beneath, arched their torsos across, and fanned their legs above one another on the screen.
There were also some parts of this program disappointed me. Often, Lang’s work leans into thematic content like heteronormative love, longing, and the bittersweet. Her movement phrases skew toward the lyrical, and so lend themselves to romantic interpretation. Though it is visually captivating to watch, we’ve seen this story play out on stage many times before, especially in Lang’s choreography. About half of the program reflected this.
I had mixed feelings about i.n.k., another relatively recent piece that closed the evening. It was nice to see another piece in which Lang’s choreography is moving out of a romantic rut, but I had a hard time investing in much of piece. The most captivating element was the video projection of flowing black liquid that streamed and bubbled across a screen upstage.
Sometimes, the dancers would perform movements inspired by or in response to what was being projected behind them. That was fun to watch.
But after a while, the imagery in the video made me feel like I was watching an elaborate mascara commercial. The dramatic music and big lifts sometimes drifted into unprovoked romantic territory. And at times, the ink-inspired movements onstage were too literal.
Still, I’m glad to see growth in Lang’s approach to choreography. She has developed some captivating signature movements and brilliant means of evoking an environment through dance. I look forward to seeing where her development as a choreographer will take her next.