Lyric Pieces

“My creative process is the same no matter the genre of dancer I am working with, but the outcome of what I make and the movement I make is very different because ballet dancers and modern dancers are still very far apart in their esthetics”. Jessica Lang

From the use of both ballet and modern dance as choreographic languages, one can spot the links between the works of Jessica Lang and Twyla Tharp, the celebrated North American choreographer notable for mixing and matching of genres, melding classical ballet and modern dance. Lang herself was a dancer with Tharp’s company before embracing choreography as a career and, like Tharp, she began by experimenting with videotaping improvisations. But Tharp’s influence in Lang’s output has more to do with work processes than with movement and choreographic language. As director of her own dance company, Jessica Lang Dance, Lang is recognized for her individual style and for pieces that are artfully crafted and emotionally engaging. She has been praised by US dance critic Robert Gottlieb for her “strong intelligence” her “analytical mind” and “impressive sense of how to move dancers in natural yet seemingly inevitable ways”.

Jenna Roberts in Lyric Pieces

Jenna Roberts in Lyric Pieces Photo: © Roy Smiljanic / BRB

This commission for Birmingham Royal Ballet, her first in Europe, follows a string of successful works in North America, where for the last 13 years she has created over 75 ballets and dance pieces for companies like The Joffrey Ballet, Richmond Ballet, Kansas City Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, Colorado Ballet, Washington Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Ailey II, ABT II and Hubbard Street 2. Explaining how her new piece came about – she sent a sample of her work to David Bintley and was thrilled when he responded with an invitation to create for the company as part of Birmingham’s International Dance Festival – Lang comments she has relished the opportunity to work here “I knew that the Birmingham Royal Ballet dancers have such technical proficiency that I could use and make prominent in the work. They are a wonderful group of talented and sensitive artists”.

The result is Lyric Pieces, a 22-minute long work rooted in the classical idiom and set to 10 movements from Edvard Grieg’s collection of 66 short piano pieces of the same name. Written between 1867 and 1901, these folkish works for solo piano are highly melodic and evocative of the Nordic region. The genre was so natural to Grieg that he once wrote in a letter to his friend, the German-Dutch composer Julius Röntgen: “I have been lyric once again. Can’t you please cure me of this affliction?”

Maureya Lebowitz in Jessica Lang's Lyric Pieces

Maureya Lebowitz and artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet in Lyric Pieces Photo: © Roy Smiljanic / BRB

Another source of inspiration for Lang was the work of MOLO Studio, a collaborative design company noted for objects “that define intimate temporal spaces” and whose award-winning pieces have been acquired by such prestigious collections as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. For Lyric Pieces, MOLO Studio created a set made out of black kraft paper, which extends and folds into walls ranging from 6 feet to 1 foot in size, plus 8 stools. As Grieg’s short pieces change, so do these shapes. The performers inhabit a set that magically morphs into “a different world and environment to dance within and around”.

One challenge for Lang was to balance the work between alternate casts of 8, developing a relationship with them early on, so that all the dancers were ready for the stage at the same time: “I always start the process with a few phrases, trying to really get a good grasp on the dancers in the room. Once we start to get to know each other I begin to make phrases on them directly and then start to construct and build the piece using the phrases and breaking them down and developing them into more”.

The interplay between all these elements – music, sets, costumes – how they feed into and impact on the choreography is characteristic of Lang’s style. For Lyric Pieces, Lang is reuniting with lighting designer Nicole Pearce (they have worked together on Crossed for The Joffrey Ballet, I.N.K. and Among the Stars), whose dance and theatre work include commissions for choreographers Mark Morris and Aszure Barton, and with Elena Comendador, who has spent 15 years designing for companies like The Martha Graham Dance Company, The Jose Limon Dance Company and Complexions Contemporary Ballet.

Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet in Jessica Lang's Lyric Pieces

Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet in Lyric Pieces Photo: © Roy Smiljanic / BRB

The affinity between Comendador, who is well known for exploring “the fine line between sculpture, installation and costume” and Lang, for whom costumes often serve as props, is apparent in works like Splendid Isolation III, where a giant round skirt envelops the female dancer. Conceived by Lang and designed by Comendador, the work has been highly praised for its ingenious use of the costume as a symbol. Splendid Isolation III was recently performed at a dance gala in London by American Ballet Theatre’s Principal dancers Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Beloserkovsky.

As a choreographer Lang is also hoping to inspire young professionals and to bring balance to a role that in ballet has been traditionally assigned to men. She is currently on the faculty of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, the ABT / NYU Steinhardt Masters Program and the ABT New York summer intensive programs. She is also a teaching artist for the Make a Ballet program.

Jenna Roberts and Iain Mackay in Jessica Lang's Lyric Pieces

Jenna Roberts and Iain Mackay in Lyric Pieces Photo: © Roy Smiljanic / BRB

Modern dance is full of successful female choreographers and there seems to be a good balance between genders. But when it comes to classical ballet, Lang finds the lack of female leaders, whether choreographers or artistic directors, frustrating. As goes the famous quote by George Balanchine, “Ballet is Woman”, but beyond this somewhat idealised vision of “the ballerina”, lies the fact that a typical ballet curriculum does not give much opportunity for a young dancer to sample a true experimental creative process.

The European dance scene, in particular, has become increasingly dominated by male choreographers and we asked Lang about this divide: “a shift has to happen beyond just giving any women the chance to create. This is something that is talked about all the time, and questioned, but I don’t really see any one person or organization really trying to make the change that is necessary”. Lang is committed to leading by example and helping women find their creative voices “I will do my part to advocate for true change, but as that happens I am happy to represent women and hopefully inspire other young girls to follow in my footsteps”.

This feature was originally published as a programme note for Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Lyric Pieces now returns as part of BRB’s Opposites Attract Bill, at the Birmingham Hippodrome 26-29 September and Sadler’s Wells 23-24 October. For more information and booking, visit BRB’s website.

Watch Artistic Director David Bintley discuss Jessica Lang’s Lyric Pieces:

We started The Ballet Bag in April 2009 with the mission to prove that ballet is not stuffy, old fashioned and inaccessible; that it is quite the opposite: relevant, fresh and topical. With the aim to Give Ballet a New Spin we try to show it under a different light. When writing our capsule biographies, ballet fact cards, review roundups and commentary on social media, we cross it over with other art forms and cultural references (pop culture, cinema, rock music – ie. other things we love!).

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