Jessica Lang Dance performing Lines Cubed.  Photo © Sharen Bradford

Jessica Lang Dance performing Lines Cubed.
Photo © Sharen Bradford

Lines Cubed, Mendelssohn / Incomplete, Among the Stars,
The Calling (excerpt from Splendid Isolation II),
White: A Dance on Film, i.n.k.

Lisner Auditorium, George Washington University, Washington, DC;
March 28, 2015

Carmel Morgan

The day Jessica Lang Dance performed in Washington, DC, the weather was bone chilling. It was warmer in Fairbanks, Alaska, than in the nation’s capital. Unfortunately, I left the performance feeling cold too, and it had nothing to do with the temperature of the theater or outdoors. Somehow, the young company (founded in 2011) failed to ignite me. Others clearly felt differently, though, as there were encouraging whoops and shouts and a number of patrons leapt to their feet to applaud.

My guess is that the difference of opinion stems from the company’s reliance on elements other than dance – clever costumes, set design, and video compositions. Lang chose to collaborate with some very talented artists, and the performance was admittedly visually arresting. In particular, the video art by Shinichi Maruyama, along with editors and compositors Tetsushi Wakasugi and Jackson Notier, was jaw-droppingly amazing. The downside of working with someone like Maruyama is that the dancing runs the risk of being outshined, which is what happened in both “White: A Dance on Film” and “i.n.k.” All the loud clapping? I suspect people were bowled over by what they saw on the screen more than by the dancing that took place on the stage where the choreography fell short of the brilliance exhibited by Maruyama. I doubt any choreographer wants folks going home from a performance with their foremost memory being something other than the movement he or she created, but that’s what happened in my case. The onscreen images persist, and the choreography quickly faded.

“Lines Cubed,” features accordion-folding lines of a plastic-looking material that stretch vertically and horizontally (set design by Lang with molo products designed by Stephanie Forsythe and Todd McAllen), making a backdrop that looked like a Mondrian painting. Dancers changed costumes (by Lisa Choules). In sections called “Black,” “Red,” “Yellow,” “Blue,” and “All,” they wore the aforementioned primary colors, and the lighting design (by Nicole Pearce) played with these colors as well. I suppose the idea was to make a Mondrian sort of artwork come alive. While the concept is fun, the choreography doesn’t hold up to the promise of the idea. The movement, predictably, consists of lines made from outstretched limbs. Straightened arms stick out like the hands of a clock or airplane wings or the top of the letter “T.” Certainly the dance translates the idea about lines very literally! The dancers, disappointingly, seemed devoid of emotion

Kana Kimura performing 'The Calling'.  Photo © Takao Komaru

Kana Kimura performing ‘The Calling’.
Photo © Takao Komaru

The other works (all by Lang) also have strong ideas behind them, but the actual movement didn’t inspire much interest. Best was “Mendelssohn / Incomplete,” probably because the impetus of the work appears to be the music. Six dancers start from a tight cluster, then elegantly disperse. From the group evolves a solo, then various re-joinings and partings. In addition to the lack of gimmicky props, I appreciated the simplicity of the gentle movement, which paired exquisitely with Mendelssohn’s “Concerto No. 1 II Andante con moto tranquillo”. I could almost hear the dancers breathing in rhythm with the notes as they peeled off or waved up from the floor. Here, Lang’s choreography, ironically given the title of the work, seemed totally complete and compact like a poem.

In “Among the Stars,” the dancer who grabbed my attention most frequently, Laura Mead (my apologies to former Alvin Ailey star Clifton Brown, who will always have a special place in my heart, but seeing him dance now reminds me how he and I have both aged – and I’d rather not be reminded of that!) surprisingly donned pointe shoes. She sparkled like the glittery little jewels on her pale silvery gray costume (by Elena Comendador). Mead slowly unfurled a long gauzy train behind her and the long fabric served initially as a divide between her and Kirk Henning. Not very surprising was the fact that she tangled and wrapped herself in the material, twisting it and eventually creating a little cocoon in which she stood.

After intermission came the most visually impactful works. In “The Calling (excerpt from Splendid Isolation II),” Kana Kimura donned a gorgeous long white skirt (costume concept by Lang, costume by Comendador), that spread out beneath her like a giant volcano out of which her torso emerged. I’m not entirely sure how it was accomplished, but Kimura, as she dropped to her knees, magically melted and shrank before our eyes (I assume she was standing on some kind of elevated contraption). Twisting her body, Kimura swung the huge drape around knotting it. Again, the concept, or rather the costume, was clever, but the choreography merely toyed with it, and I didn’t feel Kimura had a chance to transcend the burden of all the white fabric in which she was encapsulated.

Jessica Lang Dance performing 'i.n.k.' (dancers Kana Kimura and Clifton Brown) Photo © Sharen Bradford

Jessica Lang Dance performing ‘i.n.k.’
(dancers Kana Kimura and Clifton Brown)
Photo © Sharen Bradford

“White: A Dance on Film,” which Lang choreographed and directed, stands out because contrary to most of the choreography, the film is extremely inventive. So crisp is the footage that I was disoriented for a moment when it began, thinking there were actual live dancers who had come onto the stage. The dancers in the film are aligned perfectly, so that it appears their feet are hitting the stage. Wearing white costumes by Comendador, they jump in glorious slow motion so that one can see everything from the first preparations to the final fling of hair. Some sequences are sped up, with dancers popping up vertically faster than humanly possible. Fascinatingly, the same pair of dancers perform with each other in a mirrored quartet. Who hasn’t wanted to slow down or speed up a dance or have dancers dance with themselves? With film, you can make that take place.

“i.n.k.” also makes use of Maruyama’s incredible visual artistry. Black ink flies across the white scrim, sometimes in a rapidly moving horizontal blob and sometimes in tiny droplets falling languidly from the sky. The original score by Jakub Ciupinski adds gurgles and plops, and Nicole Pearce’s lighting forms deep shadows. In a humorous section, four dancers kick and dodge giant black ink balls that hovered on the scrim directly behind them.

I give Lang plenty of points for cleverness. She definitely has a great eye for visual elements and knows how to pick fantastic collaborators, as a choreographer should, but I think the type of movement she creates needs time to mature.