Jessica Lang Dance in The Wanderer (photo by Takao Komaru).
Bessie Award winning Jessica Lang is no stranger to Chicago’s stages. Having been honored with a prestigious commission at the Harris Theater during the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial, and presenting her world premiere, Tesseracts of Time, last season, Lang “creates a wondrous, romantic world in The Wanderer,” coming back to The Harris in April. The contemporary story ballet features Lang’s signature choreography set to Franz Schubert’s moving operatic song cycle, Die schöne Müllerin. The music is performed live during the performance while singers and dancers share the stage to bring together the work into a music and dance event.
Created in 2014 as a commission for the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and Joseph Melillo, BAM’S executive producer, The Wander was Lang’s first ever full-length story ballet. A singular moment in her career, and a time to add a longer work to her arsenal, Lang explains “He (Melillo) encouraged me to make an hour-long piece because that’s what his audience was used to. I accepted this because I didn’t have anything like that in my repertory, nor had I created anything like it before.” And so she set out on her first step, a wanderer in her own right, creating a new ballet.
In the fall months of 2014, Lang explains the integral part to creating the ballet (and most of her other works too), was finding the kind of space to create that would support her needs. Created in two different residencies—at the Deli Webb Center in Arizona and at Jacob’s Pillow during the fall—Lang used these spaces to support the integral set piece in The Wanderer. “For me the set doesn’t come in at the last moment. It’s crucial, actually that the set is with me from the beginning. So the challenge was finding residency spaces that allowed me to hang the sets where I could, then create with them.” She explains, “The space directly affects the outcome, and the potential for success was much greater since I had those residency spaces.”
Known for being a “master of visual composition,” (Dance Magazine), Lang explains further that her works center around the physical space. “I’m constantly looking, because we’re a touring company, to use portable materials.” She says. “Things that can make a big impact without it being a structurally hard, and financially difficult set to build when we are trying to load in and out (of theaters) quickly.”
Elaborating on the challenges that come with creating this work, Lang insists the biggest difficulty for her is space, “When I (wanted) to create a new dance that had a significant set, I came up with this idea of string and making it into a tree.” Enter the string tree: a beautiful white structure hanging from the lighting rig, creating tree shapes, a brook, and other images that help to tell the story in The Wanderer.
“The set actually came before anything else,” Lang points out. “I was imagining these trees that were made of string, and then I didn’t know what I was making. I was like, am I making Hansel and Gretel? Why this forest of trees?” But Lang explains the trees eventually became characters of their own during the creation process. Manipulated by the dancers, creating pathways and images that help to suggest scenery and surroundings central to the theme, Lang’s trees developed into a kind a dancers themselves integral to the work. The concept is so indicative of Lang’s long known propensity to take traditional ideas of collaboration to the next level.
Once these all-important trees had a home in the piece, and after Lang had found adequate creation space to develop the ballet, the next step was determining just what the ballet would be about. “I knew the Schubert piece, which tells a really lovely story,” says Lang, referring to her choice of Die schöne Müllerin. She opted to bring the music’s creation (vocal and piano) directly onto the dance. She dressed the singer to resemble the lead dancer, and set him inside the dancing space, choreographing his movement among the trees and the dancers. Explaining that blending music and dance seamlessly is quite important to her work; physically setting the two together in this way adds yet another level to immersive collaboration between all elements of her ballet.
Finally, there is the narrative: the story is a poetic one, of a journeyman who is wandering through the forest. He happens upon a brook which (or “who” in Lang’s words, providing more proof that she sees her string tree creations more as additional dancers, and not just set pieces) leads him to The Mill where he meets the Miller’s daughter and falls in love. We come to find, through the work, that this “miller’s daughter” loves the color green and notices that the journeyman is carrying a bag with a green ribbon on it. He gives the ribbon as a sign of his love and she accepts it, misleading him. The brook then also leads a hunter who is dressed in green to the same point in the forest and, of course, the miller’s daughter falls in love with him. This betrayal is the slow demise of the character Lang dubs, The Wanderer, and he becomes tortured by everything in nature that is green. He throws himself in the brook and perishes.
Lang explains, “The story captivated me, so I thought this was a chance to do my first full evening story ballet, but in a very contemporary way. While it’s a fairytale of some sort, it’s one that I think is believable in the way that it’s the story of love and loss and heartache. So it can be a beautiful experience.”
Jessica Lang has made her work widely known as she transforms classical vernacular into collaborative, contemporary work with complex emotional significance. Her works captivate as she uses set pieces and casts in bold and inventive ways, against movements that employ traditional lines and technique. And Chicago audiences are lucky to witness such a singular voice in motion on the dance stage today.
The Wanderer runs one night only, on May 3rd,at The Harris Theater for Music and Dance.
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts