Jessica Lang dances with things. With props. With light. With ideas.
Her troupe debuted at Jacob’s Pillow’s Ted Shawn Theatre Thursday evening—certainly not her Pillow debut, but her first time in the big theater. With a half-dozen works ranging from whimsical to profound, Lang explored music by Bach and Beethoven, words by Shakespeare, and ideas that come directly from her own generation as well.
“Lyric Pieces” opened the program. The linchpin for the ten or so ensemble pieces comes from black, accordion-like flexible props, maneuvered by the dancers into fans, walls, towers, seats. The dances themselves have narratives, shifting with the musical moods, all compact and intense. A beautiful sequence of touches closes the work, the dancers pulling each other suggestively behind a screen in a parting gesture. Pianist Michael Smith performed Edvard Grieg’s emotional score.
Jammie Walker reprieved a Lang favorite—“The Calling,” an excerpt form “Splendid Isolations II.” Costumed simply in an enormous white pleated skirt, fanned out around him over most of the stage, Walker’s dance—almost entirely confined to the upper body—was simultaneously muscular and lyric, capturing a riveting a cappella Renaissance score.
The percussive “Glow,” a world premiere, was fun and slight. The props and costuming complemented: a wavy neon line, traced from floor to ceiling, matched sneakers on the five dancers. Patrick Coker’s light-up shoes changed color with the neon tracing in the final—almost perfectly synchronized.
Gorgeous playing (violinist Sarah Atwood, in the familiar Gavotte from the E major Partita) almost stole the stage from John Harnage’s work in “Solo Bach,” alternately flowing, robust, or gymnastic. Atwood played standing stage right, and was choreographed as a kind of silent partner to the movement.
“Sweet Silent Thought” creates its mood from old-timey, scratchy recordings of Shakespeare’s sonnets—a remarkable atmosphere to dance to. Two couples worked in white, with nocturnal lighting, men in simple shirts and pants, and the women in nightgowns. The visuals and movement were eerie, bordering the foreboding, with much of the text a rumination on death and legacy.
“Thousand Yard Stare” is a work that could define modern dance for this generation. A 2016 commission based on Lang’s research with veterans and counselors, the camo-clad dancers re-create the huge swing of emotions that a much different ensemble—soldiers—have experienced for centuries.
From the herky-jerky march that opens and closes the extended work, through the pulls, drags, lifts and exhortations that fill it, “Thousand Yard Stare”—the title evokes the phrase that was first used to describe “shell-shock”—grabs the viewer and doesn’t let go.
The score—the Adagio movement from Beethoven’s late Op. 132 quartet, played beautifully by a Tanglewood Music Center foursome, including Atwood—is a striking as any slow movement from any string quartet. Nicole Pearce’s inspired lighting design created tragic shadows throughout, shading and emphasizing the comradely activity onstage.
Jessica Lang Dance appears in the Ted Shawn Theatre through July 9. For tickets and information visit www.jacobspillow.org or call 413-243-9919.