When Jessica Lang Dance makes its Boston debut at the Shubert Theatre next weekend, it will mark a major homecoming for founding member Julie Fiorenza. Though the 34-year-old dancer was born in South Korea, she was adopted at 6 months and raised in Walpole, graduating from Walpole High School in 2000. She did all her formative training in the area at the Boston Ballet School and the former Academy of Dance Arts in Norwood; one of Fiorenza’s closest friends was in her first dance class there at age 4.
“I made wonderful friendships at that studio and really loved being part of a group that was bigger than just me, the camaraderie,” Fiorenza recalls. “I was pretty shy as a kid, not great at expressing myself through words, but my teachers brought me out of my shell and instilled confidence. I never felt shy onstage.”
That’s easy to believe. Fiorenza will perform in five of the upcoming program’s six works, including Lang’s signature “The Calling,” a spellbinding solo in which the dancer wears a voluminous white dress, the skirt of which covers the entire center of the stage. “It takes a lot of practice just learning how to maneuver it,” Fiorenza says. “It’s a gorgeous piece, very meditative. It allows you to go to another place, and it’s very rare to have that kind of quiet time alone onstage.”
Fiorenza grew up thinking she’d be a ballet dancer, entering Boston Ballet School in eighth grade. “It was a professional track, and it was very rigorous and intense. But I decided that wasn’t the path I wanted to go down. I really wanted to pursue contemporary and modern dance,” she says. She got a scholarship to attend a summer intensive at the Ailey School, subsequently auditioning into Ailey II, the junior branch of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She received a BFA from the Ailey School/Fordham University.
Fiorenza also danced off and on for seven years in the Mark Morris Dance Group’s larger productions, an experience she calls “eye-opening.” She adds, “To be part of his masterworks was really special. He just demands excellence in his dancers and the highest integrity in his work, and I like to think I took a little bit of that with me.”
One suspects Jessica Lang would agree that she has. Lang’s husband, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer Kanji Segawa, introduced her to Fiorenza, and when the choreographer officially started her company in 2011, she chose Fiorenza as a founding member. She calls Fiorenza an incredible artist, lauding her calmness in rehearsal, willingness to take chances, and organizational skills. In the early years, Fiorenza not only danced but performed significant administrative duties as well. “She’s a valuable and integral part of the company,” Lang says, “contributing beyond her time onstage and in the studio. I really rely on her all the time, and she’s a personal friend, which makes it richer. I’m so glad to finally be able to bring her home to Boston to show her family what she helped to create.”
Fiorenza was attracted to the blend of ballet and modern in Lang’s work, plus the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a company she says has experienced a meteoric rise. “[Lang’s] work has the beautiful lines that you yearn for in ballet but also the fluidity and grounded quality of modern, and it says something,” Fiorenza says.
The dancer’s favorite piece in the weekend’s program is “Thousand Yard Stare,” a new work of camaraderie and loss inspired by war veterans and their experiences, danced to a late Beethoven string quartet. “Jessica worked with veterans in music therapy sessions and asked them to draw what they felt as they listened to the music,” Fiorenza says. “We took their drawings and wear them on the backs of our [costumes]. It’s a way to bring them onstage with us and incorporate them into the work. I love doing it because it feels raw and so real, and every time if feels like a brand new experience. . . . It’s very powerful.”
So how does it feel to be back performing in Boston, for old friends and family?
“Coming home to perform with this group, dancing Jessica’s work, feels like I’m coming full circle,” Fiorenza says. “It’s pretty special to have this opportunity to share that with the most influential people in my life — family, teachers. None of this would have been possible without really supportive parents. This career path is very difficult, and I wouldn’t have made it this far without them sacrificing a lot and going out of their way to do whatever they had to do for my dancing.”
Given that, she offers some advice for young dancers coming up in Boston now: “It’s really important for young dancers to just stay open-minded and try to expose themselves to as much variety of dance as possible,” she says. “So much wonderful dance comes through Boston. In order to find your strengths and where you fit in the field, it’s important to know what’s out there. There’s no drawback to just being a sponge and absorbing as much as you can. Being open and receptive, that can only make you more well-rounded and better educated and a more sensitive artist.”
The diversity of repertoire in Jessica Lang Dance has contributed to the company’s growing popularity, Fiorenza believes. “The upward trajectory we are on has been incredible,” she says. “She wants you to have some sort of emotional response. [That’s] easy when she makes these beautiful involved worlds onstage. Each piece is its own sort of creature. If we perform four or five works in a night, it can feel like going into different worlds. What better way to push yourself as an artist and continue to grow?”
Jessica Lang Dance
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Shubert Theater, Boch Center, Jan. 27-28. Tickets $65-$75. 617-482-6661, www.celebrityseries.org
Karen Campbell can be reached at email@example.com.