NextMove presents Jessica Lang Dance

Bitter with the sweet

As I watched the first half of Jessica Lang Dance’s recent performance, the adjectives that struck me were “sweet,” “light,” and “young.”  My favorite of the three pieces, the ethereal duet “Among the Stars,” with music by Ryuichi Sakamoto, used a wide swath of airy fabric that began life as the train on a dancer’s dress, then became wings and, later, a road through the stars, alternately separating and bringing lover-stars together.

The company performs Lang's powerful "Thousand-Yard Stare." (Photo by Todd Rosenberg)

“Her Road,” a dance for four women inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe’s Road series, featured music by Beethoven. The costumes, designed by Jim Lang, evoked O’Keeffe’s color palette, with a deep turquoise border on the hem of a pale and filmy dress, but the dance itself felt more like an impromptu celebration on a summer day. It was lovely, but in a week full of dance I wondered: if I could only see one dance performance this week, would this be it?

As the lights fell for the show’s second half, I settled in for something different. I’d seen Jessica Lang talk about “Thousand-Yard Stare” and had watched excerpts on YouTube before I knew they’d be performing it in Philadelphia. So I was looking forward to it.

Light to dark

But first, the short dance piece “The Calling” took me completely by surprise. A single overhead spotlight bathed the solo dancer, Kana Kimura, in a halo of light that just encompassed her fluid white skirt, spread in a wide circle at her feet. The lighting and the music -- the traditional hymn “O, Maria, Stella Maris” (Mary, Star of the Sea), performed by Trio Medieval -- evoked the dark and smoky depths of a Gothic cathedral. Kimura wove her arms and bent like a reed, constrained by the sea of her skirt until at the end, she turned and turned, literally bound by the skirt wrapped around her feet. A dance this simple should not have been as powerful as it was, but it astounded me and by itself made the evening worthwhile.

“Thousand-Yard Stare” made for a powerful departure from the previous dances. Performed as an ensemble, the piece expresses the lives of soldiers in war and their struggles at home. Costumes, designed by Bradon McDonald, were military green, with paintings by actual veterans on the backs. With Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 providing the weight and solemnity that are due to this piece, dancers worked together in tightly linked forms, scattered, and were brought together again. Most effectively, a dancer on the outside, lost and adrift, was drawn back into the group. Here, no one was left behind—not in war and not at home. In interviews, Jessica Lang said she spoke to and worked with veterans to inform her choreography, and it shows. This is a brilliant piece, easily one of the best of the season.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.