After starting out in 2011 with a Joyce Theater residency, Jessica Lang Dance returns to the Joyce for its fifth anniversary season, not long before it opens up its own dance center in Long Island City this September.
A Juilliard graduate and former member of Twyla Tharp’s troupe THARP!, Lang moves in many modes. The anniversary program has five works, all highly varied, all but one boasting fairly serious, somber moods.
The beefiest on the program was a New York premiere, Thousand Yard Stare, a work honoring war veterans and set to one of Beethoven’s late string quartets (No. 15, Op 132, 3rd movement). Before the music starts however, the dancers pace the stage and the auditorium vibrates with the aggressive pulsation of stomping feet. Militaristic formality is evident, and before long so is the camaraderie of a soldier’s life. Her choice of music could not be more appropriate; the third movement of Beethoven’s 15th string quartet is one of the most elegiac works ever written, with a gasp for air about a quarter of the way through, a section which Lang capitalizes on with bounding, life-affirming leaps and energetic choreography.
Thousand Yard asks a lot of its dancers. There are countless difficult partnering moves and lifts, including but not limited to several variations on carrying the entirety of someone’s weight. Often dragged around like dead weight, bodies often coil and roll in knotty groups (several of the most engaging formations have echoes of Crystal Pite), crawl on the floor like commandos and splay out – bursting from invisible bullets. There are strobelights but no gunshots. Thousand Yard does not attempt to replicate the war experience in facsimile style, but it effectively captures a range of moods and experiences: pride, honor, hope, fear, friendship, loss and helplessness are all there, as are shock, trauma and mourning. Thousand Yard Stare puts humanity itself under the microscope. Lang spoke with therapists who specialize in working with veterans, and veterans themselves (veterans’ artwork is printed on the backside of the dancers’ costume tops). Her research shows. The result is a deeply affecting work which uses a range of formations, solos and partnering to achieve the totality of a conscientious piece.
Another highlight on the program was Solo Bach, a simple, elegant solo performed by John Harnage. Set to Bach’s third violin partita, the brief work is light, lithe and freeing. Harnage performed with a warm smile and eagerness, and his movement was light as a feather. He is one of those dancers whose energy is felt all the way through to his fingertips, every muscle vibrating, the body alert, ready to pounce. Swift spins, light leaps and upward arm movements facilitate the work’s gentle briskness, and it shows Lang at her most musical. Solo Bach is a babbling brook rather than a piece of composite choreography. One step flows right into the next with dulcet fluidity, showing an ease which calls to mind Paul Taylor or Mark Morris. In a brief video, Patrick Coker (who shared the role this season with Harnage) said of dancing Solo Bach “that it is really enjoyable to just fall into the pocket of the music…” And what a fantastic pocket to fall into. More please.
In addition to Thousand Yard, i.n.k. is the other lengthy work on the program. An earlier piece, dating from the company’s inception, i.n.k. wanders a bit. Inspired by the different facets of liquid, the commissioned score by Jakub Ciupinski uses a wide variety of liquid sounds. Some sections are gloopy others drippy, splashy and some bubbly. The backdrop throughout is a slow motion video of inky liquid by Shinichi Maruyama. The video element feels dated already. There are some playful movements, with dancers jumping up or under the drops and blots on the screen, but much of i.n.k. Is overly serious, if not overwrought. A lengthy pas de deux with Kana Kimura and Clifton Brown all happens as a single pearly drop slowly makes its way down the scrim; when the score reaches crescendo, she is held high in his arms, and the droplet creates a burst of black ink on the white screen. The movement throughout is perfectly fine, but the most interesting sections are in the drip, drop and plop staccato sections, not in the arenas of melodramatic theatre.
Among the Stars, a pas de deux and a half between a man, a woman, and a long train of gossamer fabric, was sadly another exercise in histrionics. The fabric is an obvious barrier between the two lovers, and this is intentional: the work is based on the ancient Chinese story of a pair of celestial lovers (weaver girl and the cowherd – each the brightest stars in their own constellations) separated by the Milky Way. Set to a minimal score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and danced on Sunday by Laura Mead and Jammie Walker, there is nothing overtly wrong with the piece. It is pretty enough but feels like an attempt at replicating the atmosphere and aesthetic of something like Wheeldon’s After the RainI, without having enough choreographic originality going for it. The fabric effects can be striking at times, and very sculptural, and ultimately cements Mead to the ground by the end but the fabric shouldn’t be the most interesting aspect. Sweet Silent Thought, a work celebrating Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, is set to audio recordings of a selection of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The recordings snap, crackle and pop like an old radio, muffling the actual recitations somewhat, as if the Shakespeare we’re hearing is a tape found from a time capsule. The intention is there, the choreography is pleasant but not striking, and at times rather beautiful particularly in the area of same sex partnering, but the total effect feels like a fragmented fledgling rather than a compelling whole.