CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Choreographer Jessica Lang’s newest work is a collage of movement, video, photographs, painting, music and even clothing. The patchwork of motion, images and sound represent a melting pot of cultures.
While Lang and her creative collaborator Jose Parla were inspired by New York City, where people of many backgrounds and cultures live side-by-side, the piece came together on the Illinois prairie.
“What started out as a symphony for the city turned into, ‘This is America, too,’” Lang said.
She spent more than two weeks in an Intensive Development Lab residency at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. The residency – in its ninth and last year of funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation – gives emerging and established artists space and creative resources to develop a new work. The artists-in-residence work with University of Illinois theater students and Krannert Center staff on lighting, sound, production, costume, media and stage management.
Lang creates original works as the Bessie Award-winning artistic director of the Jessica Lang Dance company, which performs at some of the most prestigious performing arts centers around the world.
Choreographer Jessica Lang and visual artist Jose Parla consult on the progress of a new dance piece at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
Photo by Joyce Seay-Knoblauch
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The 25-minute piece, titled “us/we,” that she worked on at Krannert Center is a collaboration with Parla, a multidisciplinary artist whose work includes painting, sculpture and murals. One of his common themes is using layers of paint and posters torn from public walls that evoke the history of urban landscapes.
Lang said Parla’s work is an “anthropology of place.”
“He’s all about these ideas of leaving your mark. What compels a human to write on a wall and how does time destroy it and what are the layers underneath it?” she said. “(His work) has so much movement and expression, it instantly feels like it must be related to dance.”
Parla was at Krannert Center for part of Lang’s residency, and while he was there, he created paintings and worked with Lang to capture film of the integration of dance and painting. This process included experimentation through movement, body positions and visual art elements in large- and small-scale details. The piece will include footage shot by Parla and costume designer Moriah Black in neighborhoods throughout New York City, including people speaking in various languages.
Lang described the choreography as sculptural and poetic, but it also includes club dancing to ‘80s rock and hip hop music.
“You can hear time. It places you somewhere,” Lang said of the ‘80s music in the production.
The music also includes two movements from a work titled “the national anthems” written by composer David Lang, founder of Bang on a Can All-Stars and a previous Krannert Center guest. He used phrases from national anthems around the world to compose a new anthem. Out of his collage of anthems, he found themes common to every people, Jessica Lang said. This amplifies her theme of people living in unity.
The sound also includes a recording of two of the dancers singing, meant to evoke musicians busking in the New York City subway.
The costumes, designed by Black, use a deconstructed and layered composition. Each is one-of-a-kind and made from recycled clothing, along with rags that Parla uses to create his paintings.
Lang said the space, time and creative resources of the Krannert Center residency are “incredibly valuable” in making a new work. When she creates a dance, she imagines what it will look like, but she often has very little time to work with it on a theater stage before it is performed in front of an audience.
“In the real world, you have no time in the theater. More time in the studio doesn’t produce more answers on stage. You need this kind of technical residency,” Lang said. “I’m able to discover things during this time that will affect my career for the next 10 years, 20 years. It will not be isolated to this piece.
“This is a brilliant place with people who have a high regard for this art form and really understand the need (for time to work on a creative project),” Lang said of Krannert Center. “They’re doing it right.”