Choreographer Jessica Lang Finds Inspiration in Arizona Landscape

New York choreographer Jessica Lang, artistic director for Jessica Lang Dance founded in 2011, has been spending time on Arizona stages of late. Recently the company performed in Tucson and in Wickenburg, and they'll perform this month at Mesa Arts Center, with a touring program that includes five dance works and one film.

Lang received the 2014 Bessie Award for outstanding emerging choreographer, joining a list of Bessie honorees that includes choreographers Merce Cunningham, Garth Fagan, Bill T. Jones, and Mark Morris. It was Morris, the artistic director for Mark Morris Dance Group, who encouraged Lang to start her own dance company -- and Lang considers him a mentor.

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Her recent Arizona adventures included a two-week residency at the Del E. Webb Center for the Performing Arts in Wickenburg, where she completed the creation of movement for her first full-length story ballet called The Wanderer. While there, she also worked with designers for sets, costumes, and lighting.

The Wanderer is a one-act, 65-minute ballet with live music from Franz Schubert's song cycle Die schöne Müellerin, which is based on early 19th century poetry by Wilhelm Müller. Jessica Lang Dance performs the world première of The Wanderer at Brooklyn Academy of Music in early December.

When Lang landed in Wickenburg, she'd yet to finalize movement or design elements. The Made in Wickenburg Residency Program made all those finishing touches, including elements that reflect the Arizona landscape, possible. "The desert plants are very gorgeous," says Lang. "There's no prettier skies than Arizona skies."

When lighting designer Nicole Pearce joined Lang in Wickenburg, they rose before dawn to watch the colors of the sunrise, and watched the sunset, too. When lighting the piece, they "took an actual day and the progression of light but an abstraction of that thought." Portions of The Wanderer are infused with lighting in various blues and greens. Yet for much of the work, it's the green of a single ribbon at the heart of the tale that prevails.

The Wanderer cast includes three men and five women who portray four characters and four "others." The wanderer, she says, is like a poet looking for love. The brook is a mystical creature that brings him to the mill. The miller's daughter is youthful and mysterious. And it's the hunter, not the wanderer, who wins her love.

Her set for The Wanderer, designed by Mimi Lien, features "five trees with very long trunks" made with 2,700 yards of white string. Lang sees parallels between the trees, which populate the black, grey, and white world of The Wanderer, and Arizona plants bearing long, thin spines. They're able to stretch the trees out through the space, she says, and "draw with string in the space." Dancers manipulate the set, according to Lang. "Eventually the dancers tie them together into one large tree."

Costumes for The Wanderer have what Lang calls "a contemporary vibe." Think knitwear that stretches as the dancer moves, and looks much like clothing we're accustomed to seeing everyday. One key character, the hunter, dons punk-inspired fare. Costumes were designed by Bradon McDonald, a contestant on season 12 of the TV series Project Runway.

Lang hopes to return to Arizona to perform The Wanderer. Touring the work requires that it be adaptable to different types of stages. Completing the ballet in Wickenburg allowed her to configure the piece for performance on a proscenium stage.

Her current tour features works selected to "bring people who've never seen us into the work." Those attending her Mesa Arts Center performance will see Lines Cubed, Mendelssohn/Incomplete, Among the Stars, The Calling (excerpt from Splendid Isolation II), i.n.k., and the film White. "It's accessible," says Lang, "but not dummied down."

There's a lot of responsibility on artists in terms of what they put in front of audiences, she explains. Some works have mass appeal while others turn people off. Lang says she strives to achieve "a good fit."

Lang started dancing while just three years old and living in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, but didn't realize until she was 13 or 14 that dance was something she really wanted to pursue. "I felt strongly," she recalls. "I never chose anything else." Early on, she studied jazz dance, then landed at The Juilliard School after an instructor suggested she apply. Lang graduated with a BFA in 1997.

She's a passionate advocate for arts education. Recalling her own early interests in math and science, Lang notes that "there is a lot of math and science in dance." She encourages dancers to pursue higher education, recognizing the role college plays in the transition to adulthood. For the age 18 to 22 set, college provides not only learning opportunities but also a place to "become independent from family but still have the structure and discipline to take care of yourself."

Since 1999, Lang has created more than 80 new dance works. She's working now on additional new works, for her own company and others. "The constant production of new creations is what keeps me alive," reflects Lang. She's also eager to give her company a home in Long Island City, noting that having a studio and offering classes will help to achieve a "bigger reaching impact."

Jessica Lang Dance performs at Mesa Arts Center Thursday, November 20, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $40. For information or tickets, visit Mesa Arts Center online or call the box office at 480-644-6500.

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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble