Interview: Jessica Lang

Interview with Jessica Lang

Tell me how you got started in dance.
I was watching my sister in class when the teacher asked if I wanted to try. It was literally one of those Chorus Line moments where I thought “I can do that.” I was three years old but took ballet because that’s what my sister did. I was more interested in being a violinist or an astronaut.

My local dance school participated in those jazz competitions which is how I met Joe Lanteri, a huge figure in the jazz world. When I was 15 he suggested I take his class in New York. That was it. I said to my mom “I’m quitting school and moving to New York.” She said “No, you’re not. But your father and I will figure out something.”—and they did. My parents committed to driving me every day from Pennsylvania to New York to take his class at Steps. He also taught jazz at Juilliard. As I progressed, he thought I should audition there. And so I did and was accepted. I managed well enough to get in, but couldn’t believe it. “I got into this school? Are you kidding?”

How was Juilliard?
It was great. In the dorms I was living with a world-class cellist, a drama student, a violinist, a flautist and an opera singer—I was surrounded by talent. We could be goofing around watching Saturday Night Live and the next moment one of them would be practicing a Shostakovich concerto. It was amazing.

As graduation approached, I focused on getting a job at Hubbard Street because of my jazz background. I had an offer to join their second company, but in my senior year it fell through. I was on my way to see Mr. Harkarvy, the director, for advice on auditioning when I ran into a friend who was dancing for Twyla Tharp. She mentioned two girls were injured. and everyone else was exhausted trying to cover for them.

At the conclusion of my meeting with Mr. Harkarvy I mentioned what I heard about Twyla’s two injured girls. He picked up the phone and said “Hi, Twyla? I have a girl you need to see. Yeah? When? Okay.” He hung up the phone and said “You have an audition on Wednesday. If she tells you to stand on your pinky, try it: she’s testing you.” That audition was one of the hardest 20 minutes of my life. They taught me two phrases from her repetoire—it wasn’t easy. Twyla was not only interested in my dancing but was also seeing how fast I could learn, but by this time I had gotten very fast. We kept going until I thought I was going to throw up. The twenty minutes felt like they lasted She finally said “Okay. We’ll call you.” I picked up my bag thinking please don’t faint in her presence. Legs, just get me out of here.

They offered me an apprenticeship with the company as I was finishing my degree at Juilliard. Within weeks I became a company member. I graduated from Juilliard on a Friday and Saturday was my first performance at the Spoleto Festival—I flew down right after graduation. I danced with Twyla’s company, THARP! for two years traveling all over the world.

We toured the world for the first six months. It was exciting but it became challenging in a way I wasn’t prepared for. At Juilliard, they don’t put you on an airplane, fly for 30 hours, then tell you to get up and dance. The jet lag and stress were hard and the cast was so small nobody could get sick or injured—but they did and had to go on anyway. During this time, I missed the creative process. I didn’t like repeating the same rep for two years. That’s not who I am, but I was just finding this out about myself—it had nothing to do with Twyla.

After the company disbanded, we finished the performances, I saw an ad in Dance Magazine that Hubbard Street 2 was having a choreography competition. I sent in my video and was one of 2 people selected to created a new work on Hubbard Street 2. I sent out that same video to second companies around the country in hopes of receiving more opportunities to create. Everyone wrote back saying it was great but It was John Meehan, director of ABT2 at that time, who actually responded asking for a new work. Then Roy Kaiser, at Pennsylvania Ballet, called John asking about promising new choreographers. John put us in touch and my next commission came from Pennsylvania Ballet. I didn’t even know my own process yet, but there I was in front of 40 dancers, some of them principals, and I thought “What do I do?”—but it all came naturally. and there’s something to be said for that.

You’re more confident now?
Yes. I’m thankful for all those beginning opportunities and for not getting exposed too quickly. I wasn’t put in the spotlight by a huge company while still trying to figure out my voice and process. I’ve made over 70 works in 11 years and feel like I can handle the demands now. I have another commission from ABT2 coming up, for the Altria/ABT Women’s Choreography Project.

Let’s talk about this term “women” choreographers.
Yes, it drives me crazy. I get it: there is a scarcity of female ballet choreographers. , but still…

It’s funny because, in modern dance, you don’t see this problem.
Absolutely—there’s no lack of female choreographers, it’s a lack of female choreographers in ballet. I think it goes back to training, where you have 25 little girls and one boy. It’s not about how talented he is, it’s about him being the male lead because he’s the only male. The boys grow up naively confident, “Oh, I can do this. I can choreograph. I can run a company.” Meanwhile, there are plenty of girls, and they become very competitive, fighting just to get into the corps. They see only the dancing, not beyond it. I don’t think women see choreography or leadership as an option for themselves. That’s just my observation of it now. Whether I’ll agree with that a year from now, I don’t know.

I think it’s important that composition classes be made available for ballet students so this seed is planted early, so it’s established as an option for both the boys and the girls. Then maybe we can get past this question of whether someone is a woman making dances or a choreographer who just happens to be a woman.

This entry was posted in Interview and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.