One of the more prominent choreographers working today has returned to Philadelphia to perform this week.
Jessica Lang (the choreographer, not the film actress) grew up in Doylestown, began dancing at three years old in Bethlehem, then at six danced the Nutcracker in Philadelphia with the Pennsylvania Ballet.
“We drove an hour to get to my half-hour jazz and tap class,” said Lang, remembering her and her sister regularly doing their homework in the back seat of the car. “My mom committed to the driving.”
Now based in New York, she helms Jessica Lang Dance, touring the world with her own pieces.
At the Prince Theater this week, her company will perform a program of mostly new work, including “Thousand Yard Stare,” a piece based in interviews with war veterans.
Lang was at first apprehensive about making a dance about war. She has never been in a war zone and has no first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to be a soldier. But board member, former Marine Geoffrey Fallon, asked her to take on the subject of war.
“If I can do it, and do it delicately, then I should try,” said Lang.
Lang started with music — Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 — and brought it to veterans of wars ranging from Vietnam to Afghanistan. She interviewed them about their experience, and asked them to make drawings.
“The best way to bring conversation and to bring the vet stories into the space with us, was to do music therapy,” said Lang. “It did not have to have a theme of war. It didn’t say, think of you time in service and draw an image. It was just, ‘What do you see?'”
Those drawings were transposed onto the costumes of the dancers, who are dressed in clothes resembling military fatigues. The dancers do not represent those individual soldiers, but the hand-drawn images symbolically bring the vets on stage with the company.
Lang said the movement of soldiers through regimented marching formations is actually similar to the more fanciful and expressive movement of dancers.
“Movement and formation. Mathematics, and practice. That’s dance. It completely aligns perfectly, to investigate a march. That’s how we start the piece,” said Lang.
“Thousand Yard Stare” debuted in 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa. Its Philadelphia premiere will be part of a program of other dances, including the local premiere of “Her Roads,” a new dance about the painter Georgia O’Keeffe and the minimalistic abstract paintings she made of desert roads.