Focus, Humanity, and Dance: Jessica Lang

By Hailey Nuthals, Highlighter Editor

After its inception in 2011, Jessica Lang Dance, the company created and artistically directed by Jessica Lang, has taken a myriad of trips around the world, premiering pieces as far as Japan and as near as its home of New York. This June, the company is launching its fifth season with a performance at the Joyce Theater before it moves to its new home at the Jessica Lang Dance Center in Long Island City in November. WSN had the privilege to speak with Jessica Lang herself and learn more about her style and what she wanted for her own company. Lang originally trained as a ballet dancer at Julliard and was a member of Twyla Tharp’s company, Tharp!, before pursuing her dreams as a choreographer.

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WSN: You’ve said about choosing the dancers in your company that you want them to be “human.” Could you elaborate on that for me?

Jessica Lang: Sure! Well, good dancers, obviously – they have to be good dancers in terms of good training and quality and artistry and intelligence. But I also look for someone who can have a conversation, who can be kind and considerate of others. It’s a small group – it’s nine dancers and myself, and a couple technical people that we travel with, and its’ really about making sure that everyone in the group is cohesive in terms of personality. And I consider that being human, when you have a conversation with someone and relate and genuinely express care from a real place. So actually my company is exactly that. I’m proud to say that I was able to find nine dancers that were equally talented as dancers but also that I like to travel with and be in the studio with. I like to observe their connection to each other.

 WSN: What, for you, is the most challenging part of choreographing shows for commission? What do you do differently when working for your own company?

JL: Well, it’s interesting because when I get a commission, I always ask the same questions. Who is the audience? Who are my dancers? What is the artistic director asking from me? I try to make sure that’s all in alignment so that I’m not making something that’s not in useful or meaningful to the organization or company as a whole. I do the same thing for my own company. It’s just that for my own company, the conversation with myself is a little more free – or confused, it depends on how you look at it. I am my own boss, in a way. I have to put my own boundaries, and that is often reflected by budgetary restraints and then creatively thinking how I can do the most with the least amount. And I do that for all organizations, to be quite honest. Because you can get a lot of creativity out of a paper bag. When you have lights and orchestras and birds, it doesn’t necessarily make it better. It makes the artist go really deep and try to convey something really powerful in the simplest way.

WSN: You have an incredibly diverse range of thematic content in your work – from “Solo Bach” to “i.n.k.” to “Thousand Yard Stare,” you have covered a huge range of ideas. Where do you draw your inspiration from?

JL: It’s interesting because I don’t work with movement. Movement is the last thing I do. So in my mind, I think about where the inspiration is coming from. It could be words, it could be art, it could be sculpture, it could be universal happenings… whatever peaks my interest or is what I call a “wink,” – what is that? What is it that stirs me into thinking that is a dance that should be made? Whatever the beginning point is, then I start to fill the rest of the creative circle. If it’s a costume, then I find the music. I find the ideas that need to support in order to make a dance. Then the last thing I do is movement. I walk into the room with not a wholly realized circle of ideas. Something might be missing – it might be music, then I play with music choices for a few days. But I always have a concept. It’s concept-driven, and then movement is the explanation. It’s kind of backwards.

WSN: What were some of the most important things you learned in your time at Julliard?

JL: To never give up, really. It’s always about just surviving. A life in the arts is not about – I don’t feel like you can ever sit back and say, “oh, now I can relax,” even when you’re successful. There’s always a necessary focus, and a discipline, and it goes beyond just the art form; the entire business structure needs discipline. And I realize that now, by the evolution of being a dancer to being a choreographer to being an artistic director and managing an entire organization. That’s something that takes time, and you can’t learn that in four years in Julliard, but they do set up skills, if you’re able to take those things you learned and keep applying them throughout your life and keep reminding yourself that it’s a journey. And it’s a difficult one, but it is so rewarding, too.

WSN: Do you have any advice for students in college right now who are hoping to go into dance either as performers or choreographers?

JL: Don’t try and predict what you’re going to be. You can have a goal and have a dream and have a vision, and you should, but you should also listen to yourself and if you find yourself trying to turn a corner, let yourself.

Jessica Lang will be exhibiting her pieces (including three New York premieres) with her company at the Joyce Theater at 175 Eight Avenue, June 14th – 19th. Tickets start at $10 and can be acquired at www.joyce.org or by calling the Joyce Theater at 212-242-0800.

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