Jessica Lang Dance in Lang's Thousand Yard Stare. Photo by Todd Rosenberg
When I read last month that Jessica Lang Dance had announced its farewell, I'm sure I wasn't the only dancer surprised. In the same way that many of us, when reading an obituary, instinctively look for the cause of death, I searched for a reason for the company's unexpected folding. It was buried in the fifth paragraph of The New York Times article:
Her manager, Margaret Selby, said in an interview that Jessica Lang Dance's closing showed how difficult it is to keep a small dance company running these days. "You have to raise so much money, the smaller companies don't have enough staff, and Jessica was running the company for the last seven years without a day off," she said. "She wants to focus on creative work."
Whereas the announcement itself may have come as a shock, the root cause certainly doesn't. All of us in the field are familiar with the conditions to which Selby refers. But that these problems can topple the success of a company like Lang's, which boasts seven years of national and international touring that include commissions from Jacob's Pillow and The Joyce, among others, is sobering.
Will Rawls in The Planet-Eaters: Seconds. Photo by Darial Sneed, Courtesy Rawls
"Do away with it."
"How about just plain old 'artist' or 'choreographer'?"
These are a few of the comments that popped up when, on a recent morning, I posted a query on Facebook fielding thoughts about the term "emerging"—as in "emerging choreographer." I can't remember when I first sensed disgruntlement toward the E-word. But in speaking with dancers and choreographers over the years, I've noticed that more often than not it elicits an eye roll, head shake, groan, sigh or shrug of "whatever that means."
Jessica Lang Dance company members at the center’s groundbreaking. Photo by Nana Tsuda, Courtesy JLD.
New York City is home to choreographic nomads, with most artists hopping from rental space to rental space to create their work. To have a dance studio of your own is a dream usually reserved for only the most celebrated choreographers—Paul Taylor, Mark Morris, Bill T. Jones.
Jessica Lang will be added to that list this month when she opens her 6,100-square-foot Jessica Lang Dance Center in Long Island City, just across the East River from Manhattan. The two-studio building will house her company, Jessica Lang Dance, and a school for children and adults. Lang’s husband, Ailey dancer Kanji Segawa, will direct the center.
Lang says that the idea for the dance center has been on her mind ever since she moved to Long Island City eight years ago. Back then, its streets were lined with warehouses. Today, the neighborhood has a mix of residents, as young families continue to seek out Queens, one of the most culturally diverse areas in the country. The owner of the building that will house the space wanted someone to use it to give back to the neighborhood, and Lang’s longtime donors helped her with funding. “I knew the community I was living in was exploding,” says Lang. “A dance center doesn’t exist in LIC, and there’s definitely a demand for after-school programs.”
Though Lang’s choreographic resumé dates back almost 20 years—most of that work commissioned by ballet companies—she didn’t start her own company until 2011. But in that short time, it’s seen great growth. During its last two seasons, Jessica Lang Dance sustained a full touring schedule and employed nine dancers for 30 weeks. “This center is directly related to the success of the company,” says Lang. “It was evident that in order to not affect the quality of the work or the morale of the group, a space was necessary.”
The school will offer classes for children, 18 months to 12 years old, based on a ballet and modern dance curriculum; the adult division will have open classes in everything from dance fitness to salsa. “Our goal is not to make a professional dancer, but to let people explore,” says Lang. Her company will also hold intensives and master classes for pre-professionals and college students, and she will rent out available space to other choreographers.
Lang doesn’t deny that with a school comes steady income that will help sustain her company in the present, and help it grow in the future. But she says her bigger picture is the goal of building an arts community, and passing dance on to another generation. “I didn’t want this to only be about my work. It’s not the core part of how I create—it’s always for people,” says Lang. “Dance has to be seen to exist.”