10 Minutes with Jessica Lang
The concept-oriented choreographer meets her architectural match.
Takao Komaru, courtesy Lang.
Architects, studios and artists from more than 30 countries will attend the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial. One of its highest-profile commissions, however, involves two artists who work just a short subway ride away from each other in New York City. Tesseracts of Time, by choreographer Jessica Lang and architect Steven Holl, will premiere on November 6, at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance as part of the Biennial, which runs through January 3.
Were you familiar with Steven’s work before this commission?
Steven is building the new Queens Library at Hunters Point, right next to my company’s offices. I was attracted to the building before knowing he designed it, and that led me to learn more about him. So his name coming up for this commission felt like a wink—like it was supposed to happen.
His sense of light is consistently inventive and poetic, like yours.
Light is one of the subjects that came to the forefront right away, along with this founding thought of Steven’s, that architecture exists under, in, on, and over the ground. That led to this piece being in four sections, based on those concepts, while reflecting his musical ideas and composers he enjoys: John Cage, Iannis Xenakis, Morton Feldman and David Lang. Steven is my subject, so to speak—I’ve been diving into his world to bring it into mine.
Jessica Lang Dance in Lines Cubed. Photo by Sharen Bradford, courtesy Lang.
What about dance interests him?
One of our first conversations was about the time and length of our careers. We discussed how, if a dancer is lucky, they work until they’re 40. He explained that his first commission came when he was 50. I make a dance in three weeks. His start-to-finish can take eight years. That continues into size, shape, budget, everything else. To make a building and to make a dance are very different things.
And one is permanent, one is not.
Now, tesseracts are “impossible” shapes—they exist only in theoretical geometry.
That’s right. Square is to cube as cube is to tesseract—they’re incredible forms.
How are you and Steven referencing them?
He created models of them, which he recorded on video, moving the camera to guide us through them. We’re putting dancers in front of projections of that video to make the “in” section; the models will look huge because he shot them up close. For the “on” section, those same tesseracts we were just “in”—three of them, 12 to 16 feet tall—are on the stage as set elements, which get raised up for the “over” section, so the dancers are “under” them. It comes around, full circle.
Will Tesseracts of Time go on tour?
Yes. I put that limitation on Steven right away. It had to be tourable, and so now, in addition to Chicago Architecture Biennial and Harris Theater, it’s co-commissioned by the Joyce Theater Foundation as well as the Society for the Performing Arts in Houston, where he’s building an expansion to the Museum of Fine Arts. Everywhere that Steven is, or will be, can be an opportunity for us to perform.
Does that mean China?
It’s been discussed. Steven has an office in Beijing. That would be a first for my company.
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.
Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.
But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.
When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.
As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.