"For a long time, I kind of felt like a misfit," says dancer Heather Lang, "and here I am, finally, feeling at home." Her home right now is in the cast of Broadway's Jagged Little Pill, helmed by director Diane Paulus and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.
The dancing in the show is its own misfit of sorts: Cherkaoui has created work for everyone from his contemporary company, Eastman, to Royal Ballet of Flanders, where he's director, to Cirque du Soleil to Beyoncé, and his melding of styles isn't what you'd typically expect from Broadway. Jagged Little Pill's choreography includes moments of highly structured improvisations, embodying the grunge vibe of Alanis Morissette's '90s soundtrack, but also eerie, ghostlike "avatars," as dancers express characters' inner emotions when words alone can't do them justice.
We spoke with Lang about her path to Jagged Little Pill and dancing in the show's most chilling scene.
Her Wild Ride of a Career
The show is Lang's third Broadway credit, and, like Cherkaoui, she comes with experience from seemingly disparate corners of the dance world: "I grew up in a hardcore ballet background," she says, but attending NYU Tisch exposed her to experimental and contemporary dance.
She's been a Rockette, but has also had gigs in opera, film and TV's "Fosse/Verdon," and has worked for downtown choreographers like Beth Gill and John Jasperse. "It's a wild ride," she says with a laugh.
The "Couch Dance"
In Jagged Little Pill, she's a member of the incredibly dancy chorus, though she's featured prominently in Act II's "couch dance," in which Lang embodies Elizabeth Stanley's Mary Jane, a seemingly perfect Connecticut mother and wife, who's consumed by her addiction to prescription pills. In the scene, she overdoses on opioids in her home. That's when Lang appears from behind the couch wearing Mary Jane's same black pants and denim shirt. Set to Morissette's haunting "Uninvited," Lang's limp body slides along, around and off the couch, sometimes interacting with Mary Jane who is eventually found unconscious on the floor.
Lang, who's in her mid-30s, describes the movement as "liquid, falling, release" and "a full surrender." Her mastery of the scene becomes all the more impressive when you learn that she had a hip replacement nine month ago. "That sort of fluidity, and with my background, age and experience, it's where I feel most comfortable," says Lang. "The show's more hard-hitting and get-your-legs-up stuff, which I used to be so good at in my 20s, is harder."
Shape-Shifting Throughout the Show
How does she shift between such different modes of dancing, and tap into the headspace of Mary Jane, as well as another character, a teen named Bella who's dealing with sexual trauma? "I track both of those characters through the show. You'll notice little parts where I'm standing behind Mary Jane. That gives me information that then serves me later."
Lang also credits her study of acting for helping her to connect with a difficult emotion quickly. "That's a practice and something I've really worked on. There are little things that help me: The chord progression in 'Uninvited' is so damn spooky. Every night I hear that, I have imagery, an inner landscape going on. And the minute that I look at Mary Jane, I enter that space, like, 'Boom. I'm here.'
"That's what's so exciting about being a dancer. You're able to mold and meld like you're a shape-shifter. There's so much joy in that."
Finding Deeper Meaning in the Role
Lang was involved in Jagged Little Pill's first workshop two years ago, and at the time, she'd just found out she was pregnant. She rejoined the show for its the pre-Broadway workshop in late 2018. "There wasn't a ton that changed as far as my track," she says, noting that much of the framework was set in the initial developmental period.
But now, Lang is a mother who plays a mother in the "couch dance." "Being a mom is so deeply profound," she says. "All I know is I want to give any character I play, but especially MJ, as much complexity as possible. Being a mom is so layered. It's beautiful, powerful, life-changing, challenging, grueling, not valued, sometimes disgusting, magical, ambivalent, boring, beyond fun. It's all the things!"
As for what's next in Lang's career, she says, "I try not to get too boxed in. We love labels in our culture, but I think most dancers are actually quite versatile. We have the capacity to do all kinds of things, and I have to be honest: I just love dance. I love performing."
She hopes to bring Cherkaoui and Paulus' spirit of rigor and generosity to her own work. "I want to continue to create that environment for others."