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creation story: Jessica Lang, Choreographer 

I knew it was hard to get into, but I wasn't educated enough about the dance world to know how hard.



What she does: Lang, who is based in New York, is an award-winning, internationally known choreographer who has created works for the New York City Ballet Choreographic Institute, Pennsylvania Ballet, American Ballet Theater's Studio Company, Hubbard Street II and others. She also dances with the Peridance Ensemble and Phrenic New Ballet in New York City.

How she begins creating a dance: When Lang first began as a choreographer, she would map out every detail of a dance before she met with the company she was creating it for. But she arrived in Richmond in January with only a "sketchy outline" of the piece she was going to create. According to her printed statement, this is "a choreographic retelling of Matthius Claudius' great song titled 'Death and the Maiden.'"

"I knew the feeling I wanted to get out and what I wanted the audience to take away, but I came with not a step," she says. "I am totally trusting myself more and more."

How she worked with Richmond Ballet: The dance is set to the first two movements of Franz Schubert's "String Quartet in D minor," which is 26 minutes long. In January, during nine days of rehearsal with eight Richmond Ballet dancers, Lang produced 26 minutes of movement in daily four-hour rehearsals. She returns to Richmond March 9 for three more days of rehearsals before the March 13 opening.

She begins by studying the musical score and making notations in the margins. While she works in the studio with the dancers, she consults the score and also keeps a small cryptic notebook where she writes down the steps and keeps a timeline of the 26 minutes, filling in blocks of time as they are produced. She works directly with the dancers, showing them what she wants them to do or simply describing what she wants to see, then watching them do it.

How she began her career: Lang began dancing when she was 3 years old, studying jazz and tap at a local school in Pennsylvania. At 6, she began attending classes at the Pennsylvania Ballet in Philadelphia, and at age 14, she was invited by teacher Joe Lanteri to study jazz dancing with him in New York. During her last two years of high school, Lang left school at noon and drove to New York with her mom — a two-hour trip each way — to dance. Lanteri then encouraged her to apply to Juilliard, where he also taught.

"I knew it was hard to get into," she recalls, "but I wasn't educated enough about the dance world to know how hard." Lang was one of 12 female dancers accepted to a class of 24 dancers.

Her first professional job: In 1997, before she graduated from Juilliard, Lang began dancing with Twyla Tharp's short-lived company, THARP!

The first year was amazing, she recalls, traveling around the world to places such as Israel, Singapore, South America, Italy and Paris to perform. But soon the novelty wore off. "It was so physically demanding," she says. "The level was so high that you always had to be on. … I did not want that to be my life. Then I thought, 'But this is what a dancer does. What do I do now?'"

How she describes her style: A mixture of jazz, ballet and modern, Lang says her choreography is "musical, dramatic and sensitive."

On why there are so few female choreographers: "I think this world [the dance world] is a man's world," she says, "… even though there are more female dancers. That's why it's hard for a woman to dance because the level of competition is so high. I think it also has something to do with confidence, with men being almost favored or desired in the dance world. Everybody always needs men — that's all you hear. Men don't have the insecurities women have … I don't think women stay in the field because there is just too much competition."

— Jessica Ronky
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