She took an un­usual step to change her dance ca­reer

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Carolina Living - BY LAWRENCE TOPPMAN Arts cor­re­spon­dent

Dancers, like foot­ball play­ers, obey an un­writ­ten law: They per­form un­til pain, age or in­jury make it im­pos­si­ble to go on. Only then do they step back to coach or go into man­age­ment. Jes­sica Lang broke that law. She joined Twyla Tharp’s com­pany after grad­u­at­ing from Juil­liard School of the Arts, grab­bing a se­cure and re­spected po­si­tion in the mod­ern dance world. But in her 20s, she abruptly walked away and plunged into chore­og­ra­phy. In her 30s, she started Jes­sica Lang Dance, which will bring six of her works to Knight Theater Nov. 12.

“I got a lot of re­sis­tance from peo­ple who said, ‘You are too young. You are too tal­ented to stop danc­ing while you still can,’ ” says Lang, whose “Gar- den Blue” pre­miered at Amer­i­can Bal­let The­atre three weeks ago. “I said, ‘You don’t know how I feel. You don’t know what I want.’

“Nei­ther danc­ing nor per­form­ing sat­is­fied me. I didn’t want to con­tinue mov­ing my body in the ways a dancer does. I re­ally like be­ing out­side (the move­ment), look­ing back at it and mak­ing some­thing, rather than think­ing about what my

body would be do­ing.”

A com­mis­sion for Penn­syl­va­nia Bal­let put her on the dance map nearly 20 years ago. Now, at 43, she has won a Bessie Award (sort of the dance world’s Tony) and has been hired from East Coast to West Coast and in Ja­pan.

Lang’s work can be as buoy­ant as “The Thing Called Love,” a suite set to Tony Ben­nett’s record­ings, or as somber as “Thou­sand Yard Stare,” a piece about war writ­ten to the wrench­ing an­dante from Beethoven’s String Quar­tet No. 14. (Both will be per­formed in Char­lotte.)

Asked whether she starts from a chore­o­graphic idea or mu­si­cal in­spi­ra­tion, she says, “I think it’s 50-50. I was look­ing for some­thing for the com­pany that’s uplift­ing and pop­u­lar, so it was a nat­u­ral ‘Aha!’ mo­ment when I thought about Tony Ben­nett. He’s from Queens, and I wanted to cel­e­brate the bor­ough … with some­thing fun and free-spir­ited and an el­e­ment of jazz. (She and hus­band Kanji Se­gawa, an Alvin Ai­ley Amer­i­can Dance Theater mem­ber, live there.)

“For ‘Thou­sand Yard Stare,’ I have known that Beethoven score for­ever. It’s so mas­ter­ful, so in­tim­i­dat­ing that I just put it in my playlist of things to think about one day. We were at home lis­ten­ing to it, and Kanji said, ‘This could be your soldier dance.’ ”

She has cre­ated more than 100 pieces over the last two decades, most out­side the com­pany she founded in 2011. Lang could have bounced around suc­cess­fully as a free­lance dance­maker, once her work caught on. But she needed her own set of bod­ies to re­al­ize her dream.

She once told Broad­way World she “wanted to ex­pe­ri­ence re­ally ab­sorb­ing the hu­man be­ing in the room with me and get­ting to know the per­son.” The prob­lem with chore­og­ra­phy for hire, she says, is “You can’t as­sume who’ll be in that room. You get spoiled by hav­ing dancers you know re­ally well, though there’s no such thing as a dancer stay­ing for­ever.”

In fact, she says, dancers are the last thing she works with most of the time: She has al­ready gath­ered ideas for sets, cos­tumes, mu­sic and lights – of­ten work­ing with vis­ual col­lab­o­ra­tors – and sketched out a piece in her mind be­fore en­ter­ing the stu­dio. There she may ask dancers to play games or move for them her­self, get­ting them to im­pro­vise vari­a­tions on her steps.

“I can’t al­ways do that with (other) com­pa­nies. When I’m hired by a bal­let com­pany, we have to move di­rectly to­ward the cre­ation of a piece. With my dancers, whom I know so well, there’s trust. They have a voice. It’s very dif­fi­cult to tell a dancer what to do all the time, any­way. They have to have an open mind and see the vi­sion I see.”

This story is part of an Ob­server un­der­writ­ing project with the Thrive Cam­paign for the Arts, sup­port­ing arts jour­nal­ism in Char­lotte.


WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 12.

WHERE: Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St.

TICK­ETS: $19.50$59.50.

DE­TAILS: 704-3721000 or blu­men­


Jes­sica Lang walked away from dance to be a chore­og­ra­pher.

Todd Rosen­berg Photography

Lang’s “Thou­sand Yard Stare,” a somber piece about war writ­ten to the wrench­ing an­dante from Beethoven’s String Quar­tet No. 14, will be per­formed in Char­lotte.

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