Jessica Lang Dance: Skirting the Issue
Jessica Lang, formerly a dancer with Twyla Tharp, made her full company debut this week at Jacob’s Pillow with an ambitious program of five dances – two solos and a duet, bookended by two ensemble works. What came through in the program, especially in this Pillow season during which most set designs have been minimal (relying primarily on lighting), is Lang’s keen sense of exploration of props and material.
This is most evident in two works that involve skirts. The beautiful, balletic duet Among the Stars, set to a Ryuchi Sakamoto score, begins with a woman, Maggie Small, on pointe, walking upstage on a diagonal, trailing a long golden skirt behind her; a man (on opening night, Clifton Brown) sits in a pool of the folds of the material, until she unclasps the skirt, which creates a barrier, like a river, between them that she must leap over, ending up in his arms. This sheer, stretchy, golden material (part of the costume design by Elena Comendador) takes many forms in the brief, inventive dance, including a luxurious shawl, and, in the end, wrapped around Small’s ankles, then calves, as Brown helps wind her up in it, creating something like a pedestal that he has put her on, that traps her, and that ultimately separates the pair.
After intermission comes The Calling, an excerpt from Splendid Isolation, commissioned by Alvin Ailey II (2006), another dance in which the skirt is a central element. The piece opens with Kana Kimura in the center of a pool of light, an exaggeratedly long skirt meticulously spread in a circle around her. Feet rooted in place, she sways, and suddenly dips and folds so precipitously and precisely that it seems as if a trap door has opened beneath her. Rising back to full height, upper body moving freely and fluidly, lower body constrained, she spins slowly, as if on slow-motion turntable, and at one point ends up on her back, head toward the audience, upper back arched up, leaving no inkling of how she got there, and how she effortlessly ends up back on her feet. This reverential dance ends, like the previous one, with the skirt twirled tight around her, further rooting her to the spot. On alternate evenings, the piece was performed by Clifton Brown, leading one to wonder how different it would be danced by a brawny man in place of a slight woman. It’s a surprise to learn that this solo was created on Lang’s husband, Kanji Sagawa.
Lang’s calling card is a dance for eight called From Foreign Lands and People, a 2005 commission for the Colorado Ballet, that was the final dance of the program. Five black, square columns serve as set and props in this clever piece, set to Schumann piano solos performed live by Taka Kigawa. The columns create cityscapes for the dancers to move among, and to move, forming benches, ramps, slides, steps, bridges… a multitude of configurations, never distracting, always engaging. It could have slipped into the category of gimmick dance, but it’s so well executed and integrated into the dance that arrangement of the columns never distracts from the movements that take place on and around them, including a droll pantomime of the piano-playing.
Less successful was the evening’s first piece, the premiere of Lines Cubed, a Mondrian painting come to life, thanks to the primary color scheme of costumes and stage design/lighting, the choppy, right-angle-oriented choreography, and some flexible, accordion-fold props/set elements, that could be pulled across the stage to create quadrants and barriers. The placement of these space–defining elements was distracting and not as well well integrated into the dance as the columns. Still there were arresting tableaux, especially at the end, when all the dancers froze, forming a three-dimensional Mondrian.
Curiously, for a choreographer so engaged in working with props, the short and simple Solo Bach, was a delight. Segawa, the opening night soloist, seemed borne aloft by the light and airy music, ending and beginning each phrase of soft-landed leaps and turns center stage, arms outstretched, face and chest lifted to the sky. It’s a beautiful piece, a joy to watch, loose, and seeming effortless, a fitting follow-up to the strictures and angles of Lines Cubed.
Jessica Lang Dance at Jacob’s Pillow
Doris Duke Stage
Through July 29