Jessica Lang Dance is not about any one style. It’s just about dance, springing from a concept.
“It’s undefined,” choreographer Lang, 42, said by phone from her New York office. “It does have elements of care for everything beyond dance. So it’s not just a dance, but there’s attention to detail of costuming and lighting and anything visual, and the set design. Its structure is based on the concept, it’s not movement-driven ... the movement is a reaction to the concept.”
She’ll be bringing her company to Hancher Auditorium on March 23, and will be doing two master classes with University of Iowa ballet students, as well as a Q&A with the dance department, on Wednesday (3/22).
One of the works on the Hancher program has two UI ties. She created “Tesseracts of Time” in collaboration with architect Steven Holl, who designed two art buildings on the UI campus.
The piece was commissioned for the Chicago Architecture Biennial and premiered in 2015 to rave reviews from the Dallas News, the Seattle Times, the Huffington Post and the Chicago Tribune.
Merging the two art forms worked well, since dance and architecture have a natural synergy, Lang noted.
“My work is architectural, with its spatial awareness and patterns and structure and craft. The development is not haphazard,” she said. “There’s mathematics and a sense of building something as you make a dance.”
The merger began with a meeting of the two minds, to discuss their separate art forms and processes.
“He really was inspired by how quickly I could make a dance,” Lang said. “Buildings take so much time, from concept to cutting the ribbon — it’s years and years and years. He was expressing how late in life he got his first professional commission, and how long it takes to see something to fruition. I can make a 20-minute dance in three weeks, and he was excited and inspired by that idea, the sense of time — one of the quickest art forms and one of slowest art forms.
“Then we had the discussion of architecture in general, and how one of his strongest concepts is how architecture is, in relationship to the ground. He shared with me that the basic concept he teaches his students is that architecture is under the ground, in the ground, on the ground and over the ground. I loved that concept right away. I don’t know what spoke to me about it, but I got it.”
They agreed on making a 20-minute dance, with four 5-minute pieces. Because Holl teaches a course at Columbia University on the architectonics of music, looking for geometric potential in sound, he’s inspired by the music of Morton Feldman, John Cage and Arvo Part, Lang said. Their works are included in the piece, designed for five men and four women. It also includes music by David Lang (no relation), who began his graduate studies at the UI.
”It was meeting of the minds,” Lang said of their musical tastes. “I was inspired by the same composers, and I could see exactly why he would be inspired by those sounds for architecture. That for me, had also the physical potential to demonstrate shape and dimension through space and time.”
Other pieces on her Hancher program feature solo dancers, including “The Calling,” which becomes a duet with a huge, swirling skirt, as well as “Sweet Silent Thought,” a quartet inspired by Shakespeare sonnets.
The other large work on the program — “Thousand Yard Stare” — uses the entire company in a war motif built around the adagio movement of Beethoven’s Opus No. 132, composed when thought he was dying of a disease.
“He didn’t die, but you can hear the fear and the hope in his work,” Lang said. “It’s a very, very beautiful, sad piece of music, and I felt it fitting for the theme of war and those affected by it — most importantly, our veterans.”
Lang grew up in Philadelphia and began dance lessons at age 3. By age 14, she was commuting to New York every day for dance classes, and earned her degree at Juilliard. She danced professionally for a decade, including two years with Twyla Tharp, before launching her own dance company.
The professional track taught her that she didn’t want to be a dancer.
“It just wasn’t for me; it wasn’t creative,” she said. “I didn’t find my passion performing the work. I found my passion in the studio making the work. I loved rehearsing the work. The idea of putting on a show, for me as a dancer, I didn’t thrive there. I used to, but when it became a profession, I didn’t. It wasn’t where I wanted to be.”
So using her network and gathering dancers who wanted to work with her — and tapping into a sense of what American audiences wanted to see — she set about creating her own company, developing a staff and board of directors, and securing commissions and funding.
“Everything fell into place at the right time,” she said, and just five and a half years later, her troupe is embarking on a 20-city tour.
Her other passion lies in education, since so many dancers skip college to launch their careers. She’s spent the past decade building on her LANGuage curriculum, teaching all populations, from young ballet students to CEOs, to “cultivate the habit of creative thinking through exercise.”
“I realized as I started the company, the exercises started to translate to anyone,” she said. “The lessons we’re trying to teach transfer into everyday life for everyone. ... There’s no boundary.”
WHAT: Jessica Lang Dance
WHERE: Hancher Auditorium, 141 E. Park Rd., Iowa City
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. March 23
TICKETS: $10 to $55, Hancher Box Office, (319) 335-1160, 1-(800) HANCHER or Hancher.uiowa.edu
ARTIST’S WEBSITE: Jessicalangdance.com