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Home > Blog > May 2015 > 10 Questions for 2015 Choreography Fellow Jessica Lang
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10 Questions for 2015 Choreography Fellow Jessica Lang

May 6, 2015 by New York City Center
Jessica Lang Dancer

Choreographer Jessica Lang has embarked on spellbindingly elegant collaborations with architects, photographers, and musicians over the course of a career that led Dance Magazine to declare her “a master of visual composition.” Lang has created more than 85 works as a freelance choreographer since 1999; wondering “what it would be like to make dance on the same group of people,” she founded Jessica Lang Dance in 2011. The company has since performed at BAM, Jacob’s Pillow, the Kennedy Center, and the Joyce Theater. We caught up with the 2015 City Center Choreography Fellow by email.

CITY CENTER: When did you know you wanted to become a dancer?
JESSICA LANG: I was 14 years old and attending a weekend workshop of a competition, Dance Master of America. Joe Lanteri was teaching class, and as I thanked him after, he stopped me and said, “You’re really talented. You should come take my class in New York sometime.” I don’t know what it was about his words and that moment but I knew instantly I had to dance and focus on it as my career path. I began traveling to NYC every day to take his class, thanks to my incredibly supportive parents. Joe continued to see my potential and introduced me to Juilliard, where he still teaches today. He thought I belonged there and encouraged me to apply. While I had studied with many wonderful teachers up to that point, he was the one who opened my eyes and I credit him completely for showing me that path to my future.

You toured with Twyla Tharp’s dance company for two years. What did you learn from her?
Dancing for Twyla was an incredibly valuable experience in so many ways. In the studio with her and on tour, I observed so much about her process and her career. It was also while I was in the company I realized being a professional dancer in a touring company and constantly repeating the same program was not what I loved about dance. I missed the creative process. I realized quickly it wasn’t that I wanted to dance, but that I wanted to try to make dances. When the company folded, we had individual meetings with Twyla as a moment of closure. During my appointment she asked if I wanted to ask her anything. My question to her was, “Should I form a for-profit or non-profit company?” This was a question at the time I vaguely understood. Her answer was “One of each.” Fifteen years later, that is what I have. My commission-based freelance work is for-profit and my dance company Jessica Lang Dance is a non-profit organization.

Why do you think there aren’t more female ballet choreographers?
First of all, I believe the conversation should be focused on the work itself, not the gender of the choreographer. While leadership in ballet is male-dominated and there seems to be an imbalance, we can’t make gender the only excuse for why someone is successful or why they are not. And the solution for developing more female choreographers is not simply to give women opportunities only because they are women. Twyla is not successful because she is a woman just as Mark Morris is not successful because he is a man. The significant reason behind their success is simply because of their talent, creations and commitment to this field and beyond. Gender has nothing to do with it. With that being said, I believe there are several significant reasons the ballet world continues to be out of balance in this gender issue. If I had to just focus on one, it comes down to education.

Jessica Lang Calling

Kana Kimura of Jessica Lang Dance performs The Calling, photographed by Takao Komaru.

What do you mean?
If we want to develop quality ballet choreographers—no matter the gender—there have to be seeds planted early in ballet training that demonstrate, ignite, and awaken creative thought, giving the young ballet students options for their future. There has to be a focused educational component in the curriculum that offers exploratory opportunity to understand and play with choreographic tools. Serious ballet programs generally do not offer this type of creative class in their curricula. As a result there is a lack of development of individualized creative thinking about movement possibilities beyond the vocabulary of steps they are learning. On the other hand, if you go to college for dance or a performing arts high school, students are exposed to improvisation and composition classes. Neither of these training options seems to fit for the serious ballet student. To a ballet dancer going to college for dance appears like a waste of time and instead their trajectory is to just start their career immediately after their ballet program. As a result of the difference in educational institutions and career expectation, there is more of a balance among gender when looking at the field of modern dance. Also it is a fact that there are more girls taking ballet than boys. And it is human nature to feel “need” because of a “lack.” With this in mind, immediately the young boys are given attention simply because they are the needed. This translates to confidence that is carried throughout their careers. To prove this, men mainly dominate the leadership of professional ballet companies. And if you look further down the ladder, the choreographers in ballet, once again, are led by men. The reason may not be always because the men are better or have more experience. The men tend to be more confident in leadership roles, so the cycle continues.

So how can we break that cycle? And how were you able to break it, personally?
I really hope change can happen. I have recently developed my own methodology called LANGuage, a creative curriculum that my company and I have started teaching throughout the country. I truly believe this is the kind of curriculum needed, and I hope through this effort we can begin to make an impact towards change. With all that being said, I can point out a few key reasons of why I have found success. My education was diverse—from my childhood dancing teachers, to my ballet training, to Joe, to Juilliard—and it gave me an open mind and nourished my creativity. It was instilled in me from these teachers and my parents that anything was possible.  I have passion and determination that has brought me a lot of opportunities. I also have strength to overcome any challenges and difficulties I have faced. I do not give up. Lastly and most importantly—I am talented and I am intelligent. I know my craft and I believe in my vision that reaches people. I have a very good business sense and I have incredible work ethic. Overall, achieving success is the result of many character traits and skill, but gender should not be one of them.

Jessica Lang Scape

Jessica Lang Dance performs Scape with the National Symphony Orchestra and violinist Leila Josefowitz, photographed by Kyle Manfredi.

What new works are you planning to develop at City Center during your Fellowship?
This fall, I will create a new work for Jessica Lang Dance that is co-commissioned by The Harris Theater and the inaugural Architectural Biennial for the City of Chicago. I will be collaborating with the incredible architect Steven Holl. We will premiere at the Harris Theater in early November. We will also be using the space to prepare for our two-week run of The Wanderer at Jacob’s Pillow this summer.

Your company performed Among the Stars at Fall for Dance in 2011. Can you talk about the impulse that led to that piece, and your memories of performing at City Center?
Among the Stars was commissioned by Charles Santos, Director of TITAS in Dallas, TX, for their Command Performance Gala in 2010. Charles wanted to have an opportunity for a ballet star and a modern star to come together for this one-time performance. He asked me to make the work for Yuan Yuan Tan, principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet, and Clifton Brown, then a member of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and now my current company member and rehearsal director. It was an incredibly fast process. Clifton had one week off from his Ailey tour and met my husband Kanji Segawa (current company member of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater) and I in San Francisco to work with Yuan Yuan during her season with SFB. We created the bulk of the piece in four hours on her day off, then used the limited time she had during her breaks from SFB rehearsal. We all flew to Dallas that weekend and premiered the piece to wild success. While it was a very brief experience, it was very special for all four of us. We had a wonderful connection and so when the opportunity came from City Center to have the work performed again at Fall for Dance, we were all really excited to have another chance to work together. The piece is actually very personal. The idea behind its creation came from Asian folklore—the tale of two stars in love, yet in the night sky separated by the Milky Way. Only once a year are the stars allowed to meet. In Japanese culture this is called the Tanabata Festival and it’s celebrated every year on July 7. This day is special to Kanji and I because it is our wedding anniversary.

Do you keep a notebook?
I always travel with a notebook and I sketch. It’s not brilliant or inventive but it is enough to get the images out of my head and onto paper so that I have something external holding my thoughts. For example, here is a sketch of an idea I had to create a tree made out of string more then two years ago. This was the very first thought I had for what became my piece The Wanderer that premiered at BAM’s Next Wave Festival in December 2014.

Jessica Lang Wanderer

Lang’s sketches for The Wanderer and the final work as performed by Jessica Lang Dance, photographed by Takao Komaru.

You’ve said that your choreography comes from an emotional place. What did you mean by that?
I am an emotional person. I simply like to feel something from the images I create. I think it is important to connect to human experience, and the dancers in my work are human. I am not cerebral when I develop movement. I am, though, thoughtfully organized when crafting the structure of my work.

If you could create a site-specific work anywhere on earth—no restrictions, no budget limitations—what location would you choose?
There are simply too many places on earth that are inspiring and offer limitless possibilities. This kind of question makes my imagination explode.


Click here to learn more about the Fellowship.