NEW YORK CITY
Click Here for More Articles on NEW YORK CITY

BWW Interview: JESSICA LANG Conquers The World

Jessica Lang
Photo Credit: D. Garcia

A month ago while Jessica Lang was in Utah working with Ballet West, I rang her to interview her about her incredible year of ongoing success. Years ago I took class with Robert Battle and struck up a dance friendship with his company dancers including Jessica's husband Kanji Segawa. But I have never met Jessica herself. Of course she is the "It Woman" of dance so I know a bit about her. With her embarrassment of accolades one would have to have their head buried in the sand not to. Besides the rapturous praise she has received for her work, she has also secured numerous commissions (American Ballet Theatre, Birmingham Royal Ballet, The National Ballet of Japan at the New National Theatre Tokyo, Joffrey Ballet, Kansas City Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, Colorado Ballet, Ballet San Jose, Richmond Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Ailey II, ABT II, Hubbard Street 2, and New York City Ballet's Choreographic Institute, among many others), received many high profile awards (New York City Center Fellow for 2015, 2014 Bessie Award, 2013 Manchester Theatre Award, grants from Jerome Robbins Foundation, the NEA, the Choo San Goh Foundation, and a 2010 Joyce Theater Artist Residency supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation), is opening her own dance center in Long Island City, and is celebrating her company's 5th Anniversary Season at the Joyce. But how did she come to all of this?

It turns out that Jessica started dancing as a sort of tag along with her older sister. The music was nice and her mother took her so why not? For young Jessica it was a hobby until she had a fateful meeting with a visiting workshop teacher. Trained at a serious classical ballet school and competition studio, at 14 Jessica met Joe Lanteri before he'd made his fame as the founder of New York Dance Alliance.


Jessica Lang:

It was he who said to me 'You're really talented. You should take class in New York sometime." And I took him very literally. I enrolled in a career preparation program at my high school that allowed my mom to drive me to New York.


Juan Michael:

Wow. That's awesome.

Jessica Lang:

Yeah. So I started taking class and I realized that I wanted to do this. And another teacher said that I should look into Juilliard and the rest is sort of history.


Juan Michael:
I like to say that choreographers create movement because they see the world not as it should be but as it could be. Does that speak to you at all?

Jessica Lang.
Yeah. I view everything differently. How people interact with each other or the objects around them but in a very heightened sense. I see dance almost everywhere around me.

Juan Michael:

How would you describe your style and your approach to movement?

Jessica Lang:

That's funny because I really do steer away from definitions. It's just too defining for lack of a better word. It labels you and then you get stuck and if you get out of that people are like "That's not what she was doing before". And it's like, for God's sake, therein lies the problem: You end up searching for what I'm doing or what I was doing instead of just letting me do. I think if you step back over a period of time you can see a line through my work. But it's a very broad diverse variety of ideas. There's always a hint of visual art; there's always some craft; a respect for the music. I am not haphazard or random. I really pay high attention to detail and quality. I think it's important.

Juan Michael:
Are you influenced by a specific technique and do you look for one specific style in your dancers?

Jessica Lang:
Well... I haven't danced now for 17 years so I'm very visual rather than physical. I still move as much as my body can without training it every day but... Of course it's influenced by what I did; that training at Juilliard where the importance and value was equal between modern and ballet. That is what is innately in my work. I love dancers who have a beautiful line but I also love dancers who understand gravity and their weight. It's this expression between technical and highly trained dancers and then a natural sense of being a human being... (when) moving.

Jessica Lang Dance in "Thousand Yard Stare"
Photo Credit: Todd Rosenberg


Juan Michael:

Was there ever a moment when you wondered about having a performance career instead of being a choreographer?

Jessica Lang:
Oh sure. I thought I went to Juilliard to be a performer because that's what I- I just thought that I loved it. But when I danced with Twyla and you get a- the education and the profession are two different things. And you can't test the profession while you're training. You can only have experiences but you can't really know what your experience is going to be in the profession and... I just didn't like it. I didn't like performing myself. It had nothing to do with what I was doing. I didn't like the same routine over and over again. And I knew that I was creative and I knew that I had an imagination towards choreography but I didn't know I could do it. I didn't know what my process was and I didn't know if I would be successful and ... you don't know anything. You just try.


Juan Michael:

That's funny because there is a lot of talk about transitioning into their life after a performance career but for you it happened right away. Is that accurate? Would you say that it was an immediate response for you that you needed to do something else?


Jessica Lang:
Yes. It was immediate. It was like six months into the job. After the newness of traveling and touring, you know, getting on a plane and being with Twyla- After that, after the newness of it wore off, I realized "Oh my God I don't want to do this." How did Christine Dakin my Graham teacher perform until she was 50 with The Graham Company? I was like, "Oh my God. I'm 23. I can't do this another 27 years. Are you kidding me?" I had an ultimate respect for her (Christine) and I also knew that that was what she wanted. That is what she was good at. That was what she wanted to do and I didn't. And it was then... finding my way.

Laura Mead in "Among The Stars"
Jessica Lang Dance
Photo Credit: Todd Burnsed


Juan Michael:

How did you start choreographing?


Jessica Lang:

I choreographed at Juilliard. I studied under Bessie Schonberg and made two works as a student. Benjamin Harkarvy was the director at Juilliard and he knew that I was - he thought I was talented - and knew that I was unhappy. And he suggested that I start to reach out to ballet companies to ask for opportunities. Like second companies because I was so young and those dancers are so young. I wasn't going to get a commission from ABT but ABT II might commission me. And that's what happened. I ended up submitting my work for Hubbard Street's first choreographic competition and was selected and that led to ABT II looking at my work. Then Pennsylvania Ballet called ABT looking for a young choreographer and they recommended me and I never looked back. I built my career from one opportunity to the next. It was literally that.


I can sense that there is something she is trying to convey that is more than talking about her career as a choreographer.


Jessica Lang:

You go and you say there must be talent there or the opportunities wouldn't continue to come. It was just something that I found more joy in... Being a part of the whole environment of dance and not just focusing only on my dancing. Being there for the dancers; understanding what they give because I was a dancer; wanting to be really fair in the room and create a warm environment where people can give me - would be interested in giving me their best. That was really important to me and it became kind of a signature of dancers who enjoy working with me. They see that.


It's suddenly clear to me. Jessica didn't start choreographing for the sake of artistic expression. It was to create a place where she could support and be supported by like minded people.


Juan Michael:

I have friends who have started companies and they all say: 'No one goes into this thinking I want to be unhappy".


Jessica Lang:

Right. It's true.

Clifton Brown and Kana Kimura in "i.n.k."
Jessica Lang Dance
Photo Credit: Sharen Bradford

Juan Michael:

I read that you were advised to start choreographing instead of creating a company right away. Was that good advice?


Jessica Lang:

Oh my God, yes. Benjamin Harkarvy and I had this conversation when I went to him crying, "I can't believe that I'm unhappy being a dancer! I didn't think I would be". And he said, "So what do you want to do?". I said choreograph and he said what do you plan to do? I said start my own company and he said "You made one good piece once. That does not deserve a company". And it was the best advice I ever had because it's true. The reason now that my company is successful is because I had 11 years of choreographing for... Gosh, I don't even remember the number- maybe 75 pieces I had created before I started a company. So I knew that when I would get into the studio I could focus. I know my process. I can be fundraising one moment or running an errand another. It can be very chaotic and highly stressful and I can't imagine the art you'd create if you didn't have experience. I think I did it right because I gained a reputation before starting the company and - you know... you have to have money. Sadly you have to have money. You have to be able to pay your dancers so they stay with you so that you can invest in the art you make. You go project to project - it all depends upon what you want - but I didn't want to set out to start a company to work with various dancers. I already had that experience. If that's the experience I wanted - going from Pennsylvania Ballet to Pacific North West Ballet, to Birmingham Royal Ballet, - and just keep making dances on a variety of dancers (I already had that). But I wanted to experience really absorbing the human being in the room with me and getting to know the person. There is something to knowing (a person) and getting to create for someone and having your own company.


Juan Michael:

What was the genesis of your dance center?

Jessica Lang:

Well it was the company. When I set out to start a company it was to put 100% of my energy behind it and it was not without many people helping. As you know, it takes a village- it takes a world to build a dance company. And we reached a point where we're employing the dancers 30 weeks a year and that's a lot of studio space to try to rent in a city that is highly competitive for space. We wasted a lot of staff hours trying to find space and I work 10 am to 6 pm. I provide the dancers ballet class and then we work all day and it's hard to find studio space. So we were schlepping from Mark Morris Dance Center to BAC. We literally would rent from several places around the city and we could be at every studio in one week's time and it's really quite exhausting to be that transient. And with eight hour works-days it's hard to find that much space. Living in Long Island City now since 2008, my husband and I had been looking at space and thinking about the company and thinking about the community and thinking: could we, would we, dare we? And starting the line was meeting the right developer and the right generous funders and the right timing. And we thought, this is supported by the borough, and our councilman (Jimmy Van Bramer) was very much behind it so we did. We're opening in September and we really wanted to- Mark Morris is someone I admire greatly and we sought a lot of advice from him. I feel grateful to call him my mentor. What he did to Brooklyn with the Mark Morris Dance Center, and the quality of his work, and the true difference he is making in his community by offering dance classes to everyone- That's very important and I see great value in that. I've never been one to make dance for dancers in terms of who's coming to see it. I want people, anybody to come see it. I don't like the word accessible but that is the best way to say it. In that I want to be inspiring and welcoming. We're not building a conservatory yet. We've grown with the community. We're offering classes for all ages and all abilities and we're really just getting people moving and (understanding) that dance is everything and all encompassing. That really is a reflection of my background and how I grew up.

Clifton Brown and Laura Mead in "Among The Stars"
Jessica Lang Dance
Photo Credit: Todd Burnsed

Juan Michael:

You're preaching to choir. I came to dance late because it wasn't available. My parents didn't think of it as something for me to do but if it had been there maybe they would have and maybe

Jessica Lang:
Right.

Juan Michael:
And LIC is blowing up from being just a community of artists to having more families. I'm excited for you all to be there at this time- the right time.

Jessica Lang:
It does feel like it. You have to just try but we see potential. And we know the potential of what we want to bring to the community and we know that it has a very welcoming warmth behind it. We want to open our doors. I want to open my door to the creative process to anyone who is curious. It's not about an elitist form that you have to "understand" to get. It's really about reaching to the people.

Juan Michael:
Would you say that you've noticed something in common amongst the people you've worked with all over the world?


Jessica Lang:

I would say that there is an effort. You don't stay in the arts for anything other than- Well, if you get this far in life to have it as a profession it's because you love it. Because it is hard and it is not totally understood by everyone and it's not an easy field to find support financially for yourself in general. So I think that that's common. That everyone is doing it- well you hope that everyone is doing it with a pureness and not getting upset or jaded as they're doing it.

Juan Michael:
Like, "Why do we keep doing this?" I recently retired because I no longer loved it as much or needed it like I used to.

Jessica Lang:
I think you have to love it. I'm sure everyone has contemplated "What am I going to do next", or "What else would I do". And there's a certain point where you might say "I'm not leaving the field because I can do this. I can help in this way. I can contribute in this way". Whether it's being a writer or being an arts administrator- how do you switch within the field from being a performer and not say, "Now I have to go back to school for computer science because I don't know anything. Even though I know so much about this field I'm going to leave it because that's what I should do"? And when you have this network of people you know- they need people who love it. Then you stay and find a different way.

Juan Michael:
I meet a lot of writers who never danced or had careers or studied dance. This is not to say that one can't write without having been a performer but you're not going to hire a product specialist if they don't really know that product.


Jessica Lang:
Well it's no different than having a dancer choreograph or a nurse operate even when there's a surgeon. I mean they've done this before. They've trained to do this; they understand it. Etc. I think it's really important to understand the field. I think writing is critical. You have (to have) a greater understanding- I wouldn't write about airline services on American Airline, you know what I mean? I wouldn't know- I wouldn't feel like if I went to writing school that I would be confident in my writing skills and my opinion if I didn't truly know what I was - or at least have my experience of that. I do think it's important. The criticism can be quite brutal at times and you think to yourself, "Ok. Well, tell me- we missed each other at Juilliard. I don't know what year you graduated. Tell me what you know." That kind of thing. Not to say that Juilliard is the only school where you can learn anything -

Juan Michael:
No. Any school-

Jessica Lang:
It's kind of like, wow. And I've been reviewed by the cooking segment and you know... "Oh! I see why it's a trainwreck! Because the dancers are dancing on toe." And you think- Sigh. Yes they are. And, it's scary. It can be very scary.

Juan Michael:
Yes. Hahahah!

Jessica Lang:
But through it all, we do it. It's more valuable that the word is out there for people.

Juan Michael:
The fact that you are trying to communicate with people and not just dancers themselves, I think that works in your favor. For me it works well because I've not seen much of your longer pieces so I can come in and actually learn about you instead of having this prepackaged opinion.

Jessica Lang:
Exactly.

Jessica Lang Dance in "Thousand Yard Stare"
Photo Credit: Todd Rosenberg

Juan Michael:
Anything you're especially excited about for this coming year?

Jessica Lang:
Oh sure! This whole year is gigantic. It's a perfect storm of things for the company launching its 5th anniversary with a week-long engagement at The Joyce. The featured work on the program for me is "Thousand Yard Stare" a new piece that I created just last year honoring veterans who've been affected by war. That's kind of my heart and it was an honest expression and full of recent attachment to the theme. I'm really excited to share that with New York audiences. It will be the New York premiere. And of course opening the center - huge - in September. I'm also making a new ballet for Pacific Northwest Ballet that will premiere in August. I also have a commission from a major New York company that I can't reveal yet... That's coming up in October.

Juan Michael:
Oh!

Jessica Lang:
I actually said it somewhere in an interview and we showed an excerpt at the Guggenheim but it's not in the press yet. And I'm choreographing "Aida" for San Francisco Opera with Francesca. It's a huge year for us and the company is taking on a huge tour. Our 2016-17 season is really full and I think- I'm just really proud of that because I set off with this group of dancers and saw that "If you're patient, we can build this". So we've tried to build this together and I've been really loyal to them and they've been really faithful to me. Together with that sense of true effort those rewards are coming at this point. I think it's a really exciting adventure. That's not to say that it's not scary or that it's all going to be great; it's going to be hard but that's what I'm looking forward to.

Juan Michael:
Hahaha! Great! Ah! You're out in Utah. What are you working on right now with Ballet West?

Jessica Lang:
Ballet West is doing the U.S. premiere of "Lyric Pieces", a piece that I made on Birmingham Ballet three years ago. It just came out of its exclusivity with the company and Ballet West wanted to present it in their innovation season next week. It got great reviews in the UK. It's the first piece I made on the company. I just got back from the UK last week from premiering my second work on Birmingham Royal called "Wink" which was honoring Shakespeare's 400th Anniversary of his death. It was all about his sonnets and that was a huge success. It's going to Sadler's Wells and Birmingham Hippodrome and then it goes on tour in the UK as well. It's truly... everywhere. It's working! And I'm proud of that. I'm so proud that I set off 17 years ago just thinking, "Maybe this is possible". I can say that it is and I'm very grateful for all the opportunities and just look forward to the many more that should be in the future.


Jessica Lang Dance celebrates its 5th Anniversary Season with a week-long engagement at The Joyce Theatre, June 14th -16th, 2016. For tickets or more information, visit: joyce.org or jessicalang.dance

Related Articles

From This Author Juan Michael Porter II

Before you go...

Like Us On Facebook
Follow Us On Twitter
Follow Us On Instagram instagram
   
popup