Dress forms draped in soft white poly mesh material take up the floor in the center of designer Bradon McDonald’s home studio, next to a vintage Juki sewing machine and another portable Kenmore in a plastic case tucked on a back shelf.
It was the latter machine — given to McDonald by his husband in 1996, before McDonald became a dancer touring with Mark Morris Dance Group — that sparked his interest in sewing as an art form. That led him to get a degree from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, landed him as a finalist in Season 12 of “Project Runway” and eventually culminated in this: his role as the go-to costume designer for choreographer Jessica Lang and her dance company, which will perform this weekend at the Ahmanson Theatre as part of the Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center series.
“He has a true artistic sensibility that is genuine and intelligent,” Lang says of McDonald, whom she first met in college when both were studying at the Juilliard School. “As a dancer, he knows how to fit a garment, and he knows I’m a small company that doesn’t have a dry-cleaning line on my budget.”
Lang made a name for herself as a freelance choreographer long before she started her own company. She wanted total artistic control over every aspect of her vision. Her work blends contemporary dance and ballet to great modern effect, and she is meticulous: Everything onstage, from the lighting to the costumes, must have purpose. In McDonald she has found a kindred spirit.
Both approach craft from a metaphysical vantage point, channeling the abstraction of feeling into dramatic, physical form. These results will be on full display at the Ahmanson, first in a piece called “Thousand Yard Stare.” The second, a West Coast premiere, is “Tesseracts of Time.”
“Thousand Yard Stare” is about the psychological ravages of war in veterans. A member of Lang’s board asked her to tackle the subject, but she was hesitant. The potential to get it wrong seemed too great. Once she accepted the challenge, she and McDonald reached out to friends and family members who served in the military and slowly encouraged them to open up about their experiences.
The culmination of this process was asking the veterans to listen to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132, third movement — the same music used in Lang’s ballet — in order to create a drawing of how it made them feel.
The striking black-and-white images were taken by McDonald and turned into costumes. A single drawing is printed on the back of each dancer’s simple, fatigue-like shirt.
“We thought it was beautiful and poetic that all the dancers would be dressed the same, but when they turned around they would have these images that the veterans drew, in order to create their own camouflage,” Lang says.
The process had added layers of meaning for McDonald, who recruited his brother — a veteran of three Army tours of Afghanistan — to be a part of the group. McDonald had never really discussed his brother’s experiences with him because his brother didn’t seem to want to talk about them, and he respected that.
“All these years I didn’t really ask,” McDonald says.
This holistic approach to art-making is what distinguishes Jessica Lang Dance, says Michael Solomon, the Music Center’s vice president of presentations and education, who oversees the dance series.
“I find her work very emotionally accessible,” he says, adding that the costumes take on a character of their own.
Solomon booked Lang in her Music Center debut partly based on “Thousand Yard Stare,” which he said succeeded in making him understand what post-traumatic stress disorder might feel like based on movement alone. But he also speaks highly on the inventive nature of “Tesseracts of Time,” which he says is a great example of the novel ways that Lang directs her dancers to interact with space.
Sixty costume pieces are used on nine dancers in the course of the 20-minute dance, which features projections of architecture by collaborator Steven Holl. McDonald personally measured and draped each dancer. It was a labor-intensive process. The costumes morph from black to white to white with sunrise-orange. Each dancer has three looks, all of which are managed quickly as dancers cycle on and offstage.
“We want to make good theater,” McDonald says of the close work he does with Lang and the other members of her creative team, including lighting designer Nicole Pearce. McDonald says he and Lang are both formalists. “We like a proscenium stage, we like lights, we like having a stage production. Taking these things away is not our aesthetic, together or apart.”
Increasingly Lang is focusing on creating immersive experiences for her audiences. Working with Holl opened her eyes to the endless possibilities of integrating other artistic disciplines into her work.
“It’s the only way I can go,” she says. “I don’t want to go back.”
McDonald doesn’t want to go back either. He and his husband, Joshua Winograde, along with their 7-month-old son, are moving back to New York City from Los Angeles. Winograde got a job as associate artistic administrator at the Metropolitan Opera, but it will have the happy side effect of putting McDonald closer to Lang. The pair is already working on yet-to-be-disclosed projects for next year.
This work will be interspersed with other commissions, of course, but McDonald holds a special place in his craftsman’s heart for Lang. One of his favorite memories is of working on costumes in Lang’s studio while she listened to music on her computer, trying to decide on the right fit for “Tesseracts.” McDonald would casually call out suggestions and the pair discussed them. It was easy and engaging — a true from-the-ground-up collaboration.
“It’s like being in residence with artists where you’re actually making something together, rather than working on each piece separately and hoping it fits together later,” he says.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Jessica Lang Dance
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: Starting at $31
Info: (213) 972-0711, www.musiccenter.org