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Jessica Lang's Unexpected Dance Company The surprising evolution of Jessica Lang Dance

By SUSAN REITER

Jessica Lang already had one of the busiest freelance choreography careers around, with commissions coming at a steady clip. Since the Juilliard graduate committed herself to choreography, ballet companies from San Jose, California to Birminghgam, England have sought her services, not to mention the Joffrey Ballet and Ailey II.

"I was happy as a freelancer," she says. "It was great. I've made my entire career out of that."

Why, then, in 2011 did she form the nucleus of what is now Jessica Lang Dance, which has its first full New York season at the Joyce Theater this week? After all, a full-time troupe brings added responsibility, new financial pressure, and the assorted worries that freelancing never involves.

"After about ten years of that, I just started to question myself," Lang says. "I was thinking, 'Is there anything else? Am I happy? What is my goal?' I was creating 12 works a year. It was nonstop and exhausting."

More reflection came after she was one of four choreographers selected for a unique 2011 creative residency initiative administered by the Joyce Theater. She realized she was the only resident that didn't work with a regular group of dancers.

"So I didn't teach that summer," she recalls. "Instead I organized six dancers that I wanted to work with, and whom I knew wanted the experience." Soon enough, this group became the seed of a new company.

By the following summer, Jessica Lang Dance made its official debut at the prestigious Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. That first program showcased her ability to blend elements of both classical and modern dance, and it highlighted her fascination with fabric and other scenic elements. As dance critic Deborah Jowitt wrote at the time, "One admirable aspect of the program is her awareness of space and her interest in altering it through scenery, costumes, and props. She doesn't use these as decoration or mood enhancers but as elements that shape the choreography."

The dancer Laura Mead backs up Jowitt's observations. She first encountered Lang at Juilliard, when the choreographer created a dance for her freshman class. After a chance encounter on a subway platform, Mead became a founding member of Jessica Lang Dance.

"Jessica has a very clear voice, movement-wise," Mead says. "A very clear aesthetic. You see her ballet background, her jazz background, and her Twyla background," referencing the two years Lang performed with Twyla Tharp's touring company in the late 90s. "It's very physical, it's very technical, and it really moves."

This week's Joyce program includes Mendelssohn / Incomplete, which began during that pivotal Joyce residency, and The Calling, an eloquent solo that Lang created in response to the death of Benjamin Harkarvy, director of Juilliard's Dance Division when she studied there and a personal mentor who encouraged her to pursue her choreography. Also on the program is Aria, a recent work set to Handel, in which Mead dances a featured duet on pointe, and White, a dance film Lang made in collaboration with Japanese artist Shinichi Maruyama.

Two works exemplify Lang's interest in detailed, sometimes interactive, visual design elements. I.n.k. incorporates video art by Maruyama, while Lines Cubed is one of several Lang pieces incorporating Molo fabric and its possibilities for shaping the stage space. "It's inspired by Piet Mondrian's artwork, the white canvas with very sharp black lines, and the color blocking," the choreographer says. "I'm intrigued and interested in working with objects and making them support the overall theme."

Even as her company's touring schedule is getting busier, however, Lang has decided she can still make time for freelance commissions. "You just have to adapt to what's in front of you, and I'm capable of that," she says. "And it doesn't compromise my work or my vision. I enjoy that, and I know how to produce in that environment. It's something I will continue to do, even as the company grows and takes its own shape."

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Susan Reiter is a freelance arts journalist who contributes to the Los Angeles Times, Playbill, Dance Magazine and other publications

Photo by Sharen Bradford