The much-anticipated premiere of Jessica Lang Dance in San Francisco arrived bittersweetly. For the Bay Area’s first real glimpse of Lang’s 8-year company it is also our last as the company is set to disband next month. It’s a set up for disappointment whether or not the performance is brilliant. The program, therefore, has to be a sampler and indeed ran the gamut from a pretty ballet to an All That Jazz-like tribute to Tony Bennett, “This Thing Called Love” (2018 & West Coast premiere.) was a dance exhibition to Bennett’s miraculous singing style and never-ending career that included images of his paintings with soundbites of his like, “If a song sounds dated it’s because it was never good to begin with.” The nine-member company was clad in Bennett’s signature white shirt and black tie with black pants at times mimed his lyrics. “This Thing Called Love” evoked Paul Taylor’s tribute to the Andrew Sisters, “Company B” which also had its dancers sailing through a series of their songs, dressed in period costumes while milking the audience for every laugh and cliché they could find. These tributes become a type of predictable narrative that greatly confines choreography even though its intent is to expose for the company’s talents. “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” even used jazz-hands while creating a sun (“Your golden sun will shine for me…”) and had a few passing cable cars with dancers stacked on each other’s shoulders. The best part was listening to Bennett over state-of-the-art speakers and taking in all of the nuance and range (something missing in the choreography) of this great singer and the timeless music of Cole Porter, George Cory, and Charlie Chaplin.
Considering that Lang was once a dancer in Twyla Tharp’s company, “Lyric Pieces” 2013, was surprisingly a formal ballet-inspired dance, with plenty of pirouettes and ballerinas in silky muted dresses (Amy Page), their hair pinned up art-deco style. Pianist Sarah Cahill performed ten short piano pieces by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg with precise delicacy as dancers emerged from and disappeared into, a flexible, accordion-like cardboard known as “Molo.” The set, designed by Lang and “Molo” pioneers Stephanie Forsythe and Todd MacAllen, was imaginative and easily moveable, fanning and expanding, into portable walls or screens, or smaller art objects. At times dancers positioned themselves underneath bridges shaped out of the paper, like trolls and other mythical Norwegian characters that inspired Grieg’s compositions. Sometimes this marriage between ballet, contemporary props, and mythology felt magical and at other times awkward,
“The Calling” (excerpt from Splendid Isolation II, 2006), also alluded to Lang’s passion for architecture and visual proclivity, through her iconic image of Kana Kimura in a stage length gown with her back to the audience. Kimura, elegantly moving her sinewy arms, slowly brings this still image and dress to life, once melting down into the layers of fabric as if sinking into it, and at other times spinning it tighter to her statuesque body. The sinking movement as an image is as grand as Helen Hunt’s attempt at drowning herself in a weighty Victorian dress in “The Piano.” “O Maria, stella maris”, sung by Trio Medieval, created a hauntingly serene atmosphere for Kimura to wade through in this minutes-long dance.
“Thousand Yard Stare” (2013) Lang’s sophisticated tribute to veterans uses the bonding and camaraderie of soldiers on the frontline as the emotionality behind platoon formations, marching lunges, sudden falling out of the dying and the movement forward by those remaining. Set on a bare stage to Beethoven’s “String Quartet No15, Opus 132—written when he thought he was dying and then didn’t—the score matches the internal world of soldiers whose fear of death is suddenly elated when given a new opportunity to live. Clad in army-green fatigues (Brandon McDonald,) the dancers poetically lift the wounded or drape the dead across their bodies. The choreography is rich with metaphor and substance, more of the internal world of those on the front rather than a statement on war, made all the more poignant as this young company put itself to rest.
David E Moreno