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Dance Review

Entering new realms with Jessica Lang Dance

Patrick Coker of Jessica Lang Dance in “Glow.”Christopher Duggan

BECKET — Of the many delightful things about the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, one highlight is that the companies of Jessica Lang and Faye Driscoll, two US-based choreographers, are on tap during this holiday week. At the same time, the sense of celebration is aptly tempered by Lang’s “Thousand Yard Stare,” one of six pieces performed by Jessica Lang Dance in the Ted Shawn Theatre. The title is a reference to the lingering trauma that combat veterans can suffer, the dance a sober reminder that independence doesn’t come cheaply.

A fascinating aspect of Lang’s work is that even on this stuffed program, each work feels unique. Between the visually rich dancing and the often striking use of lighting (most of it designed by the excellent Nicole Pearce) and/or unusual props, we seem to enter new realms with each dance. Lang’s hard-working, pleasing dancers perform with an easy, unaffected clarity.


First created in 2013 for the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the opening work, “Lyric Pieces,” is the most formally balletic, the eight dancers moving with a whisper-soft crispness. Set to music by Edvard Grieg and performed live by pianist Michael Smith (borrowed from Tanglewood for the occasion, like the other musicians who perform elsewhere on the program), the dance is abstract yet enigmatic. It’s often playful — a variety of black, accordion-like props designed by Stephanie Forsythe and Todd MacAllen serve at various times as large enclosures from which the dancers appear and disappear, or as cubes, snail’s shells, and even Gumby doll-like creatures. But an elegiac note is ultimately struck. While the others gather and execute a series of stylized gestures of grief, Jammie Walker performs a yearning solo. He is later reabsorbed into the community, making me wonder if in fact the whole group has passed into some other sphere.

A haunting sense of captivity metaphorically envelops Julie Fiorenza in Lang’s 2006 solo “The Calling,” while literally she’s enfolded in costume designer Elena Comendador’s giant white skirt that cascades down from Fiorenza’s hips and pools widely out onto the stage. Fiorenza twists and bends her torso and curves or stretches her arms into space, but the invisible movements of her feet only serve to twist the skirt about her legs, so in the end she is bound like a mermaid.


Conversely, in another solo, the charmingly earnest 2008 “Solo Bach,” Patrick Coker is set gloriously free, whether soaring in soft jumps, swooshing through a pencil-like turn that finishes neatly on a dime, or friskily prodding the adroit violinist Sarah Atwood, who is playing onstage with him. The title notwithstanding, theirs is a duet of equals.

In “Glow,” the other unambiguously carefree dance on the program, the same easy camaraderie is shared by the cast of five, which on opening night consisted of four men and the always-discerning Kana Kimura. The title is a nod to the long, squiggly neon light (designed by Lang and Pearce) that hangs from above and infuses the gleaming white atmosphere with a kind of underwater luminescence.

If Lang’s reliance on lighting and props skims a gimmicky line in “Glow,” it’s all for a good cause: The dance was co-commissioned by the Pillow to commemorate this season, its 85th. Besides, Lang’s choreography, even in the “prop dances,” is always the main event, confident and absorbing; it’s thrilling that she traverses such a stylistic range, and so unselfconsciously.


The two closing dances, “Sweet Silent Thought,” and “Thousand Yard Stare,” both from 2016, are unabashedly somber — and undeniably beautiful. The first, set to Jakub Ciupinski’s score that includes recitations of various sonnets by Shakespeare, conjures obsessive and ultimately doomed love affairs. Fiorenza, Kimura, Walker, and John Harnage match the heightened poetry and anguish of “forbidden” love, the men sharing fleeting moments of intimacy while the women cower and writhe, their own passions thwarted.

The nine dancers in “Thousand Yard Stare,” however, are past such passions: They must simply survive. Lang’s greatest risk on this program (failure to rise to the level of this combat-themed subject would be more than embarrassing, it would be shameful) pays off handsomely. Set to the sublime adagio from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15, performed live, the rituals of war — marching, crawling, trudging — are rendered with abstract simplicity, while the losses — dancers’ torsos react to invisible blows, arching back with sudden force — rush at one with a throat-catching straightforwardness.


At Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, through Sunday. Tickets $35-$78. 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org

Janine Parker can be reached at parkerzab@hotmail.com.