BWW Review: JESSICA LANG DANCE Paints Nuanced Portraits of Brotherhood
The French make a game of finding the perfect word to a phrase. For choreographer Jessica Lang the word is never in doubt. She is a master builder of choreographic phrases. Attending the June 14th opening of her company Jessica Lang Dance's 5th Anniversary concert at the Joyce was a bit like watching the construction of bridge; you may not have known why a thing was being done but it was clear that it served a purpose. This is not to say that the craftsmanship was obvious, if anything it was sophisticated in its rendering. While the charge could reasonably be made that her work lacks mystery, what stands out about Ms. Lang's choreography is how well formulated it is; every move and gesture has been considered in the name of efficiency. As performed by her company, the results were frequently too clean. This adherence to "dancing within the lines" struck me as playing it safe.And yet I could not help feeling that this effect was precisely what Ms. Lang wanted. That is where I would fault her. Where was the grit? Where were the stakes or the feeling that these dancers were pushing themselves to the brink? In another universe all together. It felt like listening to a Metropolitan Opera live broadcast; you know that the singers are not all performing at the same volume but the mixing has balanced the sound levels so evenly that the transmission communicates otherwise. This unwavering quality of tranquility threatened to defang the drama. It all comes down to execution and with these dancers, aside from moments of breakout passion and frenzy during "Thousand Yard Stare", the company wide performance style was so smooth as to lack excitement.
Uniformity of company style is always appreciated but not in the name of sacrificing individuality. While there were plenty of opportunities given to reveal themselves, I did not come away feeling that I knew who these dancers were. Excepting the irrepressible Jammie Walker, whose sky high jumps threatened to burst through the ceiling, and Kana Kimura, who danced with a depth of soul that constantly drew one to her, these dancers were simply tools in service of delivering steps. Even the magnificent Clifton Brown - once arguably the greatest male dancer in the world - performed with muted volume, which seems inconceivable considering his tremendous presence and virtuosity. The legs dévloppéd high, the turns blazed, and the nimble sweeps of movement impressed, though without any oomph. Ms. Lang has created a company of monks devoted to delivering her work without any threat of tension. Accomplished as these dancers were - and they were all wonderful - I was left feeling less than satisfied.
This long-winded study of Ms. Lang is no slight against her talent. She is that rare choreographer who circumvents pretentiousness while presenting beautifully poetic movement. I recently interviewed her for this website and what stood out from our conversation was her prolific output and commitment to craftsmanship. Craftsmanship is the buzzword that a number of reviewers love to sling at Ms. Lang as a way of defining her. It is as if they are saying, "We don't get your work but we grudgingly admit that it is well composed." It is so much more than that. Rather than falling into the trap of following one movement vocabulary Ms. Lang choreographs according to the needs of her story. Two of her ballets - "Thousand Yard Stare" and "Sweet Silent Thought" - illustrated this perfectly.
"Thousand Yard Stare" is the greatest depiction of war through dance that I have ever seen. A program note informed us that it "is dedicated to those who have served, past and present, in our armed forces." The piece began in silence as a battalion of soldiers branched off into marching formations. At a pause, Ludwig van Beethoven's "String Quartet No. 15" played, taking the troop through a series of missions - some disastrous, some victorious, all fraught with danger - that broke down and reorganized according to winning the war. The gestalt thousand yard stare - an ever focused gaze towards "next" deployed by soldiers - broke apart intermittently during the course of action. Be it while dragging a comrade to safety, planting a charge, or allowing a brief tender embrace, "Stare" honored these soldiers as more than killing machines; here they were living and bleeding people who never lost sight of winning without losing each other. Thankfully Ms. Lang avoided reducing them to hysterical caricatures. The ballet ended as it began in marching formation; the story and the mission go on.
"Sweet Silent Thought" is a dreamy ballet set to Jakub Ciupinski's crackling score over which Shakespeare's Sonnets 30, 40, 64, 71, and 105 are recited. Rather than tying the movement strictly to the Bard's words, Ms. Lang evoked the feeling of transience and impermanence found in love through a pair of couples who united, broke apart, and reformed almost as if constantly awakening from a dream. This was not a dead testament to beauty but a constantly evolving synthesis of feelings. The partnering here is gorgeous and ever spiraling without ever devolving to acrobatic tricks. This was one of those moments where a more dramatic interpretation would have better served the movement. I longed to see greater depths of feeling that the choreography demanded. Perhaps Ms. Lang reasons that she doesn't need her dancers to be fierce since her choreography already is. With the opening of her dance center in September of this year, it seems that she is prepared to establish herself for the long haul. With this newfound stability I'd suggest that she experiment with eliciting more sensitive performances from her dancers. I think that it is the only thing she is missing.