Jessica Lang. Photograph by Kazu

True Calling

Jessica Lang on life as a dancer, folding her company, and choreographing for opera

Having choreographed more than 100 works for companies worldwide, including American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the National Ballet of Japan, Jessica Lang, who grew up in Bucks County, PA, began studying ballet as a child. At the tender age of 13, realizing that dance was her true calling, she never looked back, becoming a creative force in the process.

Indeed, after graduating from the Juilliard School, New York-based Lang, who was born in 1975, then danced with Twyla Tharp’s company, Tharp! for two years in the late 90s. Realizing, however, that she wanted to be more than a performer, she embarked on a career as a freelance choreographer. In 2011, Lang created the eponymous Jessica Lang Dance, where she built a repertory of more than two dozen works that were performed nationally and internationally.

But in 2019, Lang disbanded the troupe that had toured to 85 cities and had been presented by major venues, including Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Los Angeles Music Center and the Tel Aviv Opera House.

And speaking of opera, Lang has dipped her toes in that art form, as well. Establishing a working relationship with the renowned opera helmer, Francesca Zambello, artistic director of both Glimmerglass Opera Festival and Washington National Opera (WNO), Lang was tapped to direct and choreograph Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater” for Glimmerglass in 2013 Festival. That work was then presented at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival a year later.

The choreographer also created dances for the Zambello-directed production of “Aida,” the grandest of grand operas, which premiered at San Francisco Opera in 2016. A staging with legs, this “Aida” has also been presented at WNO and Seattle Opera; it lands at Los Angeles Opera for six performances, May 21-June 12.

For Lang, who’s also racked up a slew of honors, including a 2014 Bessie Award and a 2017 Arison Award, adding opera to her CV makes sense. Fiendishly busy, the dancemaker made time to chat with me by phone from L.A., where she was in town rehearsing the Verdi classic.

Jessica Lang’s “The Calling.” Photograph by Robert Torres

Before we get to “Aida,” I’m wondering why you shut down Jessica Lang Dance in 2019? Was that a tough decision, do you miss having your own troupe and do you think you would have shut it down during Covid?

I don’t know if Covid would have been part of my decision, but I do know it would have made things very difficult, because everybody struggled during Covid. I don’t know why this question is constantly a focus, but I like to answer it this way: It’s like a good TV series, and when I felt like we had done our very best, we wanted to leave on that note. I also wanted other opportunities, for me and for my dancers. The company was very fulfilling, but I wanted more.

Understood. So, had you always been an opera fan and how would you describe your working relationship with Zambello?

Yes, I had been an opera fan and our relationship is wonderful. I love her. I think she’s a powerhouse and a genius and I think she’s just really a strong and passionate woman, a gifted leader. She has a unique way of getting the best production out of everyone, no matter where you are or what your role is. She’s full of love.

If given any opportunity, you want to work with Francesca. You feel excited, and I dive head in to any project that was inspiring [which] this project was, for sure. In understanding her vision, it was really a moment that I enjoyed; and the process—every time we get to revisit it—is great fun.

Wow, that’s high praise indeed. And the reviews have also been stellar, with the Seattle Times writing, “Despite the famous grandiosity of the opera, this show never feels static, largely because of Jessica Lang’s imaginative choreography.” How does choreographing opera differ from creating a new dance work?

Our premiere was at San Francisco Opera, so it was pre-cast by the time I got there, because they had dancers on staff. All the other companies, we have to bring them in and hire them. When we moved to Washington National Opera, that’s when we hired the dancers from my company—four women and five men. I re-choreographed it and got great reviews.

In opera, you’re following a very specific story and you have your moment where dance takes the lead in that moment. You have to be a part of it, but you have to know when to recede. How do you support the story in that moment, in that scene?

That’s different when I make something to be one piece on a triple bill; I have complete control. I still care about what’s first and after in a program, because there’s an arc and I’m curating an evening for the audience. If it’s a new work, I have the control of understanding how I might help that arc develop through the other ballets.

“Aida” at Washington National Opera in 2017. Photograph by Scott Suchman

Then there’s Verdi’s glorious music for “Aida,” with the triumphal march not only magnificent, but hummable.

I LOVE IT, OH, YES. And that should be in ALL CAPS!

The triumphal march is obviously the big moment, the shine. And what I love about Francesca is that she really does love dance; we work well together. She added so many points of dance in the production, almost in every scene. It’s not just, “Here’s the march,” and they become supernumeraries [extras doing a variety of jobs] or are no longer visible on stage. They’re woven throughout. Structurally, it’s very organic and it makes the vision of why they’re there.

It’s that whole sensory experience, that you’re sharing this beautiful music, you’re witnessing these incredible voices with the orchestra, the scenic design, the lighting—and dance that can carry the music in motion. It can make it move and it enhances the experience.

I take it, then, that you would like to direct and choreograph more operas?

Absolutely! It was great fun. I loved working on this “Aida,” because I also really enjoy working with other creators, in this case, Francesca and her team.

Jessica Lang working on “Aida” at Washington National Opera in 2017 with Julie Fiorenza and John Harnage. Photograph by Milan Misko

Opera is a collaborative art form, whereas dance, in some regards, is a more solitary endeavor. How were you so sure at age 13 that you wanted to be a dancer? Was there dance or music in your family?

When I was five, I really wanted to play violin. I started studying it [and] actually played for 10 years. I’m not good, but I am musical. My older sister was the one driving the dance train. She was begging my parents for that. But I’m younger and we went that way, and I started taking classes, too. I was interested, but wasn’t excited about it. I thought, “This is fun,” but it’s what my sister did. It was around 13 that I felt a switch inside, that I actually love this. And it’s never changed.

Okay, so you graduate from Juilliard and immediately become a member of Twyla Tharp’s troupe. What was that like and what did you learn from your experience with her?

It was exciting to get the opportunity to be a company member. At Juilliard, the expectation was to become part of a long history of a company, whether it was Graham, Taylor, Mark Morris. Getting to dance with a living, iconic choreographer was a huge achievement. It was also incredibly demanding, fast, and I valued it. I really did. I value her. I think she’s incredibly inspiring, but the dancer side of me realized I didn’t like the job of being a professional dancer.

I still don’t. I don’t like repetition. “Work hard, perform it, move on.” Who’ve I become is who I prefer, someone with individual artistic experiences. I’m not a machine that keeps doing the same thing over and over and over. It was at a young age that I noticed that with her. It wasn’t Twyla, it didn’t matter which company, I wouldn’t have enjoyed that, to just keep performing the same works as a dancer.

But I would not have been able to walk into Twyla and say that I don’t like doing this. It was a blessing that she folded her company, that’s how I experienced that. Two years into my time with her, she decided to give us the opportunity to decide. And I did exactly the same thing 20 years later with my company.

I understood it as a dancer what my dancers were going through, but I understood more so why Twyla made those decisions. It’s only in doing it that you can fully understand. There are many reasons and you move on. You know you have talent and there are other things you need to be doing.

You have a long relationship with ABT, beginning with your first work for ABT’s Studio Company in 1999. What comes first for you—the music, the choreography, a theme?

All of it. It’s just what I tend to consistently call a ‘wink’—something sparkles, it stands out from life, it kind of twinkles or winks at me. That’s a good moment. I also have to be quiet and calm and alive. Falling through life, something will hit me—a piece of music, a historical event, a sculpture. Something attracts me to a moment and it starts with a different point of entry. It can be anything—except movement! The last thing I do is movement.

I kind of think this is how ballet companies generally work. Part of it is moving ahead sooner than the actual creation time. For example, you’ll have all the sets of “Aida,” built before rehearsal and you have to work backwards as a creator. So being with the dancers and making movement is the last thing for me.

Jessica Lang and Kanji Segawa in tech rehearsals at the Kennedy Center in 2014. Photograph by Christopher Jones

You’re making a new work for Washington Ballet, which premieres in June, and another for Sarasota Ballet, which bows at the Joyce Theater in August. Since Julie Kent is the artistic director of Washington, I imagine you have a history with her, as well.

Yes, we have a relationship from ABT and that’s extended to her lovely company in Washington. The piece is called “Beethoven Serenade,” and the Sarasota piece is [set to] a Haydn trio, but it isn’t titled yet. You go into these different musical tastes and it’s quite similar to how I assume people crave what they want to eat.

With world premieres, I’m wondering if you get opening night jitters, as I understand that Martha Graham would sometimes be so nervous, she would actually throw up.

It’s more like an excitement. You go through the process, and I think you get nervous for different reasons. You want everyone to do their best; you want to see them rise. You’ve seen it so much, in rehearsal, through wonderful runs and disastrous runs. Maybe there’s a slippery floor, or something happens that’s out of everyone’s control.

But you hope for the best and you also have to be prepared to respond. That’s why we rehearse. You prepare for spontaneity; you need to be reactive; how to stay calm. The more opportunities you have, unfortunately, you will also have to face things that can go wrong. How do you recover, how do you keep going?

You would never stop in a rehearsal. To keep going is important, but how do you keep going? The only way is to practice. I get a nervous excitement, because the audience doesn’t know it might be a dancer’s first time going on [for example], so I’m hopeful.

As for Martha, that was a different time, a different era, different everything. I would say I got that nervous as a dancer. It was unbearable, actually.

American Ballet Theatre in Jessica Lang’s “ZigZag.” Photograph by Rosalie O’Connor

I admire your candor. I also admire the fact that you’re able to work closely with your husband, Kanji Segawa, a dancer with Alvin Ailey. You made the 2018 work, “En,” a Japanese word meaning fate, karma and destiny, for the Ailey company. He’s your associate and your assistant in all your creations—how does that work?

He does everything with me. He’s my sounding board, I run ideas by him, we sit down together. It’s everything from, “I have an idea, I have a commission. This is what I want to do.” We talk through what direction I want to go and all the big decisions and some minute ones. He will come with me when his schedule allows and he will be my assistant in the room.

For example, “ZigZag” [2021] for ABT, with the Tony Bennett music, he had four weeks of a window in the Ailey schedule that coincided with my creation process. He was with me every day, every hour. He knows exactly what I need before I know I need it, that’s probably because we are married and know each other for over 20 years.

He’s able to anticipate. You can’t teach anybody how to anticipate, except with time, and so he knows when I’m hungry, he can take charge. We can finish each other’s sentences, he can even say my sentence.

Here’s a sentence for you: How do you think the dance landscape has changed since Covid and what do you think is the new normal?

There are many different ways every society is changing, which is necessary, but specifically for the performing arts and the concept of how a business model is. We were on stage and we had to shift from stage to screen during Covid and how to stay alive that way. How do you curate? How do you make art for the screen, and is it specifically for the screen or when theaters reopen is it still a dance but in some physical space?

I think that was where creators had the navigation, where everyone embraced it wholeheartedly, because it gave us something to do. The reality of you sitting in the theater—how much we took for granted and we are still grateful every day we dance with masks on. I would wear them forever if it means we can do our art. Wearing a mask is so simple. Getting tested is so simple.

Agreed, so what advice do you have for young dancers or choreographers starting out today?

It is a different world, but my advice always remains, “You have to do it.” You can dream, you can think about it, you can contemplate it, but it’s only in the action of doing it do you have any sense of how to take your next step. It’s like rehearsing, you have to keep trying to see what works and what doesn’t—learn, recover and move on. It’s life lived. It’s my own experience that helps me to be able to tell my truth and share it.

Finally, where do you see yourself in the next five to 10 years?

I’m open: I get up, I do [something] every day, I see where that leads me. I work hard, I stay open to networks of new opportunities, pushing the world that I am very accustomed to—this ballet world—moving it forward, being the creator who changes, who has the opportunity to change identities in the room. It’s my responsibility to recognize what’s happening in society and fully give everyone in the room a platform to shine.

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