"Two walls of my room in the Abiquiú house are glass and from one window I see the road toward Española, Santa Fe, and the world.” — Georgia O’Keeffe, 1976
Georgia O’Keeffe created a series of paintings featuring the view from her window in Abiquiú. In 1963’s Winter Road I, painted when the artist was in her mid-seventies, all that is left of the landscape is a long black calligraphic squiggle on a field of white. This “road” will be recreated with a roll of tape at the Lensic Performing Arts Center, an appropriately stripped-down scenic element in Jessica Lang’s 2017 Her Road. Jessica Lang Dance will perform the piece on Tuesday, May 23, in a program of mixed repertoire.
“I was inspired to create a piece based on Georgia O’Keeffe — the woman as well as the artist,” Lang said. “I wanted to make a point about the American tradition of women making great art.” Lang, who graduated from The Juilliard School and danced with Twyla Tharp, has created nearly 100 dances for companies throughout the world, including American Ballet Theatre, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, the National Ballet of Japan, and Joffrey Ballet. Her company, formed in 2011, is ending a 29-city tour in Santa Fe.
“I consider myself a visual artist,” Lang said. “I paint and sculpt with movement. I create an environment with music and intention, lines that travel through space.” She said that she had visited the O’Keeffe house and found herself drawn to the simple things there — the shapes of doorways, the stepping stones leading to the door, the windows O’Keeffe had built into the walls of the old adobe structure she remodeled. Looking out those windows, seeing what O’Keeffe saw every day, offered a dichotomy for the choreographer around the idea of home versus the outside world. “It was a quiet and reverent experience. It felt personal. I enjoyed it very much. I can understand the value of being quiet. Quiet time is important to find,” Lang said.
Many of Lang’s pieces include interactive sets, with dancers manipulating large pieces and props. The Calling features a dancer in a dress that fills up the entire stage. The choreographer has also incorporated animation and projections into some of her latest works. “She likes to add visual elements beyond dancers and dance steps,” said Julie Fiorenza, who has performed with the company since its founding. “In rehearsal, she’ll talk about the inspiration for a piece, whether it’s a poem, music, or a painting. As we work, we focus on all the possible theatrical elements of a dance.”
As a choreographer, Lang’s taste in music runs to the classical. Her 2014 piece, The Wanderer, translated Schubert’s song cycle Die schöne Müllerin into dance. For Pacific Northwest Ballet, Lang created another O’Keeffe-inspired dance, Her Door to the Sky, in 2016, to music by Benjamin Britten. For Her Notes, made for American Ballet Theatre, Lang was drawn to the music and story of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, whose music was overlooked during her lifetime, in the 1800s, overshadowed by the work of her brother Felix. She wrote more than 400 works for piano, the instrument she had access to in her home. The music Lang selected for Her Road came from a CD the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum put together of music the artist was known to paint to — Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major. “The piece is very musical and captures the mood — how I feel when I view her Road paintings,” Lang said.
Lang’s theatrical abilities have given her opportunities in the field of opera. In 2013, she made her directorial debut with Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater for the Glimmerglass Festival, and in 2016, she provided the choreography for Verdi’s Aida at San Francisco Opera. The San Francisco Chronicle described Lang’s work in the latter as a “taut, confrontational” exploration on the theme of rape.
In a recent conversation in The New York Times, three choreographers — New York City Ballet’s Justin Peck, Christopher Wheeldon of London’s Royal Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre’s Alexei Ratmansky — were asked about the dearth of women choreographers in classical dance. “I don’t see it as a problem,” Ratmansky said. “Besides Crystal Pite, Jessica Lang and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa are among the very best now. And Graham and Nijinska are still performed. I’m sure that if new, interesting talent arrives and is a woman, she will have equal opportunities.”
Lang weighed in: “I get asked the question a lot: ‘Why are there no great female ballet choreographers today?’ My answer is, ‘I don’t analyze. I just do. Making dances is the important part.’ ”