Local Arts

Groundbreaking, tradition-stomping choreographer brings company to Charlotte

A 2015 still from Lang’s “Thousand Yard Stare.”
A 2015 still from Lang’s “Thousand Yard Stare.” Todd Rosenberg Photography

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.

Jessica Lang in New York in October. KRISTA SCHLUETER NYT

“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 “Garden 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. Aptly, the “Why We Fight” episode of “Band of Brothers” used the same Beethoven piece.)

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.’ 

Lang also draws inspiration from art, architecture, nature — anything that passes in front of her eyes: “It’s being kind of conscious and unconscious at the same time. Some of my best ideas come to me when I’m not making myself define something. I keep a log of these moments and marry the right idea with the right opportunity.”

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.

Jessica Lang Dance

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

WHERE: Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St.

TICKETS: $19.50-$59.50.

DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.