Jessica Lang Dance
Boch Center Shubert Theatre, Boston, Massachusetts, January 27 & 28, 2017
It is always an exhilarating experience to leave a dance concert eagerly chatting in agreement with those around you about that one favorite piece. Yet it is perhaps the sign of an even stronger concert when those around you are instead in amicable disagreement, each passionately arguing why his or her favorite piece was the “one.” So was the case with Jessica Lang Dance, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre last week. Highlighting six works from 2006-16, the concert offered a satisfying range of visual intrigue—from the purity of a Bach-accompanied solo with an air of traditional ballet (aptly titled “Solo Bach”) to the creatively complex merging of fluid contemporary choreography and dynamic video projection in “i.n.k.” Exiting the theater, one could hear all six pieces being deeply discussed, yet the end result was all surprisingly similar: Regardless of what the viewer’s favorite work was, it was “moving,” “visually striking,” and “made one think.”
For many, that favorite piece was Lang’s iconic work “The Calling,” an excerpt from “Splendid Isolation II” and originally commissioned by Ailey II. Here we clearly see why Dance Magazine once called Lang a “master of visual composition.” A solo performer stands in the middle of the stage, draped in a pale dress that extends far past her body, creating the illusion that she is emerging from the glowing, stage-sized circle of cloth around her. She undulates between softly melting into the pool of fabric and standing confidently, stretching her arms behind her, chest to the sky, as if singing the words we hear in the melody. Though simple in concept, the work succeeds in physically transforming the space as the dancer’s spiraling movements continue to pull the dress closer and closer to her body—and through this motion, we watch as her world shrinks. Her vast expanse has whittled down to nothing, crumpled at her feet. Simple, stoic, and brief, “The Calling” leaves a lasting image.
Perhaps the most invigorating example of Lang’s use of visuals onstage arrived in the final work of the night, “i.n.k.” Set on seven dancers, “i.n.k” masterfully employs video projection to create an ever-shifting, interactive backdrop for its characters. Carefully curated, the concert shifted straight from Lang’s dance-on-camera piece “White: A Dance on Film”—which featured performers dressed in white against a black abyss—to the opening of “i.n.k.”—showcasing dancers in black against a stark white backdrop. Abruptly juxtaposing these two complementary works back-to-back gives one the sense of inversion—as if stepping from one universe into its alter ego.
As sounds of gurgling liquid fill the theater, drops of black ink begin to float across the screen, left to right. Soon there is a highway of speeding black globs, interacting with those onstage as the dancers burst, shift, and roll in sync. Indeed, there are moments in which the projections feel equally empowered as the dancers. At one instance, a soloist leaps into the air for a perfectly placed, perfectly timed popping of the ink bubble above; while at another, an enormous black wave splashes across the backdrop, sweeping away with it the few standing onstage. Not only that, but in these moments of playfulness, the dancers allow themselves to embody their joy not only in their limbs, but in their faces as well. In the world of serious contemporary dance, it is a rare treat to witness choreography that encourages its performers to outwardly express all emotions—levity included.
Yet, even in this work, it is the moment of pensive partnering that is truly unforgettable. In the midst of a largely cat-and-mouse piece comes a breath-taking duet that disrupts the scene. This is perhaps one of the most moving contemporary duets I personally have had the pleasure of viewing. As the pair moves, slowly and deliberately, we barely register the singular drop of ink painstakingly making its descent down the back wall. We find ourselves reveling in the choreography’s tactility—its intimacy—while watching the shadows the two make on the otherwise empty wall. With the drop now halfway down the screen, the two begin curving into one another, lifting with a scooped arm, and cascading lusciously into a flawlessly counterbalanced twirling lift. We enjoy pulsing moments of pause, and the delicacy of partnering through the simple touch of fingertip to fingertip. As we notice the drop nearing the floor, we fear this moment will come to an end, but are instead gifted with the large explosive burst of it hitting the ground, echoed through the dancers as they rise into an arching lift. Prying themselves towards the wing, it isn’t long before both backdrop and stage have returned to their bubbling splendor.
Jessica Lang Dance made its Boston debut with this performance, and each of its six works was met with enthusiasm, reverence, and critical thought—the sign of a truly versatile choreographer.