BECKET — An oddity in the dance field is that although female dancers are the proverbial dime a dozen, an inordinate amount of directors and leading choreographers are men. Enter Jessica Lang, the director and choreographer of her own two-year-old troupe, Jessica Lang Dance, which returned to Jacob's Pillow this week.
While her works are firmly in the contemporary vein, Lang's movement vocabulary largely stems, transparently and unapologetically, from more traditional ballet forms. An arabesque often looks, well, just like an arabesque.
The exploratory aspects of Lang's work show up, therefore, less in the choreography than in the other theatrical elements. Of the program's five offerings, the two bookends — the world premiere "Within the Space I Hold" and the 2011 "i.n.k." — show Lang at her most ambitious in the use of set design, props, and music. In "Within," a large white structure (designed by Stephanie Forsythe and Todd MacAllen, with Lang) looks at first glance like an igloo on Mars.
An uneasy sense of ritual pervades "Within": Two dancers walk in on stiff-legged demi-pointes, before placing down, squishing out, then lying on pod-like props; the pods now loop around their waists, instant half-tutus; two men spill out of the structure and drag the women about, holding them by a wrist or ankle. Tucked into a booth in a corner of the stage, composer Jakub Ciupinski performs his electronic score live, his waving hands triggering percussive sounds; he looks like a mad scientist who may be manipulating the dancers. A mysterious figure in pointe shoes appears — the lovely Laura Mead — and she too is dragged around like a rag doll but at other times lifted and ferried aloft like a rarefied icon. She reappears later with her own pod-tutu, this one full — and glowing. It's the only time in this program that Lang incorporates pointe work, and it's not clear to me whether the self-consciousness of the choreography for Mead is deliberate.
In "i.n.k.," the choreography is framed by, or, occasionally, driven by projections of Shinichi Maruyama's videos of drops of ink suspended in liquid, now hypnotically cascading, now ecstatically exploding. Ciupinski's score alternates between playful watery sounds and a melancholy composition; accordingly, the performers romp gleefully or dance with anguished yearning. While the contrast between the two moods is too disparate, the central duet as performed by Clifton Brown and Kana Kimura is heartbreaking. Behind them, a single drop slowly descends as Kimura seems to break apart (first a knee jerks, then her head bows, then her torso bends out); Brown keeps grabbing her back, catching her just in time. Later, in a painful solo, Kimura looks as if she's trying to crawl out of her own skin by turning herself inside out, an ominous swath of ink trailing behind her.
The other two live pieces (the fifth item on the program, "White," is a film by Lang and Maruyama) are mostly pure dance, though the 2010 excerpt "Aria" has a hint of drama. The trio of barefoot women may at first seem to have stepped out of Botticelli's "Primavera," but their beseeching port de bras and struggle between defiance and collapse — and the fact that their long diaphanous skirts are red — suggest that something has befallen them, that these three have been dis-Graced.
The 2010 "A Solo in Nine Parts" is a joyous, pretty and carefree dance in the spirit of Paul Taylor's "Aureole." Though this piece doesn't strive to be groundbreaking, it's refreshing to remember that sometimes (remember that arabesque?) a dance can just be a dance, that good taste, strong artistic genes, and spirited performers can be — if not surprising — enormously satisfying.
Janine Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.