Dance Dance Revolution

Jessica Lang brings ballet into the 21st century.

By Michael Hardy September 3, 2013 Published in the September 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Todd Burnsed

Jessica Lang Dance
Sep 20 at 8. $18–68. Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave.

A woman stands in the center of an enormous circle of white fabric—a wedding dress, perhaps—that rises up to engulf her as she struggles to writhe free. A man dodges a video-projected ink blob like a character trying to stay alive in an arcade game. These are just two terpsichorean triumphs conjured up by Jessica Lang, one of the most exciting young choreographers in modern dance—“a master of visual composition,” as Dance Magazine puts it. 

Lang began dancing at the age of three, attended Juilliard, and worked as a professional dancer in New York until her mid-20s, when she transitioned into choreography. Two years ago, after over a decade creating dances for other companies, Lang was finally able to found her own thanks to a residency offer from New York’s Joyce Theater, (with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation). 

Jessica Lang Dance is rooted in the classical ballet tradition but also incorporates elements of modern dance and multimedia performance art. “It’s visual, it’s musical, it’s classic and contemporary at the same time,” Lang says. “I have ballet in my work, but I’m not fixed on classical form. You won’t come to my show and see Swan Lake.” 

Lang is highly conscious of being a woman in a profession long dominated by men. When asked about the disparity, she cites the strict training required of ballet dancers, most of whom are women. It discourages creativity, Lang says, and is so all-encompassing that dancers often don’t attend college. Furthermore, in a cruel paradox, it’s the scarcity of male dancers that often leads men to become choreographers, she says.

“The girl always knows she’s replaceable. The male dancer knows that he’s got less competition, so he has more confidence and is more likely to offer suggestions to the artistic director, which often leads to choreographing experience. Those are the people who go on and become choreographers. I don’t think there are as many brave women in the ballet environment who are willing to step forward and say, ‘Hey, I want to do this.’”

The Society for the Performing Arts’s 2013–2014 Great American Dance series includes legends like the Paul Taylor Dance Company, Mark Morris Dance Group, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Kicking off the series with a young company like Lang’s sends a powerful message about the vitality of modern dance. “It’s incredible what she does on stage—what she does with her setting, her lighting,” says June Christensen, the CEO of SPA. “She’s going to be one of the top choreographers over the next ten years. I think it’s just perfect timing to bring Jessica to Houston.”

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