Working as a freelance choreographer can have its unpredictable moments, but for Jessica Lang, it has meant more than a decade of steady employment and travel, as companies nationwide — and in Britain and Japan — commissioned her dances.
Yet she recently decided to launch a company of her own — to create programs where her work is the sole focus rather than part of a mixed bill. The move involves a collection of new artistic and financial responsibilities that don't seem to faze her.
Lang, 39, has made a major career decision before, when she broke the usual mold and decided at a young age to focus on choreography rather than performing, even though fresh out of Juilliard, Lang was hired to be part of THARP!, a touring ensemble for which Twyla Tharp created new repertory in the late 1990s.
Much as Lang valued being part of Tharp's creative process, the performer's life proved to have diminishing rewards.
"I didn't think I would be a choreographer. You go to Juilliard to be a dancer — that's what I thought," she said recently, sitting in a Tribeca cafe before going to her company's rehearsal. She comes across as relaxed yet confident.
"I felt really grateful that I had this amazing job. But I'd had no experience with touring and performing the same six pieces over and over. Everything at Juilliard involved working toward a performance, and then you're done and you move on.
"I realized quickly I wasn't interested in the repetition — the touring and jet lag," she said.
Three years ago, Lang began cutting back on her peripatetic existence and started working with a hand-picked ensemble of dancers that evolved into an ongoing venture. The company — Jessica Lang Dance — made its official debut at the 2012 Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Mass. It's making its West Coast debut May 30 and 31 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.
The program of five dances (plus a 10-minute film) showcases Lang's lucid vocabulary, which draws equally on ballet and modern dance, her gift for craftsmanship and her flair for incorporating visual design elements into her work.
When her company had its first weeklong season at New York's Joyce Theater in February, in addition to the individual strengths of the works and the dancers, what was notable — and all too rare these days — was her ability to structure and shape an elegantly balanced program.
What prompted Lang to take on the responsibilities and financial burdens of running her own troupe, when companies hither and yon were keeping her more than occupied?
"I was happy as a freelancer. It was great. I've made my entire career out of that and never had to have a different job," Lang said. "Traveling from company to company seemed like a good way to hone my craft and to really understand my process — without being completely financially responsible for everything. I receive the commission, and then everything is provided for me."
However, she said, "after about 10 years of that, I just started to question myself. I was thinking, 'Is there anything else?' I was creating as many as 12 works a year. It was nonstop and exhausting."
The offer of an extended creative residency from New York's Joyce Theater Foundation gave Lang a chance to experience a different work model. The residency provided 240 hours of free rehearsal time with no strings attached — no expectations or deadlines.
Lang realized that the other three choreographers chosen for the Joyce residencies all had groups of dancers with whom they regularly worked, while she had none. She also had to find room in her schedule for concentrated studio time in New York. "The only time I could do this was in the summer — so I didn't teach that summer. Instead, I organized six dancers whom I wanted to work with. I sensed it could be the potential impetus for a company."
Those six — all now members of Jessica Lang Dance — had experience performing with established companies. One is Clifton Brown, for 10 years a leading — and notably eloquent — dancer with Alvin Ailey. (Lang's husband, Kanji Segawa, was going to be part of her group, but at just that time became a member of the Ailey company, where he's now in his third year.)
With the dancers, Lang had the rare opportunity of exploring in the studio free from any impending premiere date. "What if you take away the pressure of ticket sales and reviews — what would you make? What would you create if there were no outside expectations?"
Lang's choreography takes music seriously. It is sophisticated and intelligent — and no one would accuse it of being trendy. It clearly owes something to her Juilliard training; she studied composition there with the late Bessie Schönberg, a mentor to many choreographers.
"I went to Juilliard at a very classic time, when it was a balance between modern and ballet," she said. "'Contemporary' wasn't in the vocabulary. I guess that makes me a purist. I enjoy both and respect both. I've been really fortunate to walk a line between the two."
Laura Mead, who was in the Broadway and Las Vegas casts of Tharp's "Come Fly Away," has been a member of Lang's company since the 2012 Jacob's Pillow debut.
"She has a very clear voice, movement-wise, a very clear aesthetic," Mead said of Lang by phone. "You see her ballet background, her jazz background and her Twyla background. It's very physical, it's very technical — and it really moves. She moves people around the stage and devises great formations. She's got a great eye as a visual artist, in terms of sculpting the space with dancers and how she creates a world onstage, incorporating dancers and visual elements in a really organic and creative way.
"She really gives us a lot of freedom. She's hand-picked us, and we all bring something very different to the work, and she really accepts and encourages that. She obviously wants there to be unity in the company — to look like we all have the same idea of the steps and music — but our varying approaches are really encouraged."
"I chose dancers who are seasoned and responsible and who know how to tour. They represent me in the best way possible," Lang said before leaving the cafe to oversee a final rehearsal of "Scape," her latest work, for the full company of nine. Set to John Adams' Violin Concerto and commissioned by the Kennedy Center, JLD performed its premiere on May 16 with the National Symphony Orchestra.
"When I choreograph for, say, the Joffrey, the audience is coming to see that company — not necessarily my work. But now, people are coming to see my work — my company. It just takes on a different weight and a different scale that still surprises me."