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Zachary Lewis, The Plain Dealer  |  April 07, 2014

Jessica Lang Dance to bring DanceCleveland series to bright, accessible finish (preview)

DanceCleveland isn't fading into the sunset. Far from it. It is, however, ending its season in classic fashion, with the parting image employed countless times by books, movies and television: the hint of a bright future.

In presenting Jessica Lang Dance next week, the series is closing out the year, not with an established troupe but rather with a striking newcomer, a company that's been in existence only three years but already ranks as one of the dance world's hottest commodities.

"There's a lot of buzz," said dancer Laura Mead. "We're building very rapidly. We're definitely young, and that's part of the excitement. We're a new thing."

Much of the buzz stems from Lang's unique choreographic voice, formed and tested at the Juilliard School in New York. Rare in her field, her language combines classical ballet with the weighty, grounded elements of modern dance.

The spell this casts on performers and their audience is potent. Those bound to tradition get to remain inside their comfort zones, enjoying ballet's symmetry, lightness and flowing lines. At the same time, all get the chance to witness or convey personal, emotional statements.

"I do enjoy work that comes from a ballet idiom," Mead explained. "And love that I get to use all my physical powers, that I really get to dig in.

"But there's also a lot of room for individual expression. She [Lang] really gives us a lot of room to find what feels good for us. We are nine individuals dancing together."

Collaboration is another secret to the success that has greeted Lang since 2011. Where some choreographers insist on doing everything themselves, Lang is fond of sharing the creative load with others, especially composers and visual artists.

At least two of the works in store on the company's Cleveland program April 12, "I.N.K." and "Lines Cubed," hinge heavily on sets and costumes inspired or conceived by artists outside dance.

The former, which includes video and an original score, finds beauty in midair collisions between ink and water, while the latter plays off Piet Mondrian's bright color palette and stark geometry. "Among the Stars," meanwhile, employs a long, stretchy fabric, and the solo dancer in "The Calling" works magic with an immense white skirt. The fifth and final work is "Mendelssohn/Incomplete."

"They're not just gimmicks," said Mead of the visual effects. "They really add something. They're like another dancing partner."

Not to be underestimated, too, is the company's team spirit. Because it's an entity both new and small, the troupe is still very much on the ascent, and all members are serious and invested in a way dancers with larger, established organizations may not be.

"She really gives us a lot of room to find what feels good for us. We are nine individuals dancing together."

Dancer Clifton Brown said he came to Lang from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in part for the experience of starting from scratch. Now, in addition to dancing, he's helping with administrative work and performing other tasks. This carries over to the stage, he said, keeping egos in check and drawing the artists together.

"Young dancers want to outshine the image itself. But we're all on the same page, to make a good body of work. In this company, everybody has a job besides dancing, and it's because we all want to help. We believe in the company."

But if there's one thing that truly explains why Jessica Lang Dance is on the rise, it's probably accessibility. For while strict classical ballet can be off-putting, and pure modern dance doesn't necessarily resonate with everyone, Lang's work strives for broader relevance.

In fact, Mead said, patrons need not feel obliged to know anything about dance. All it takes to be one of Lang's patrons is a certain openness and an appreciation for the inherent beauty of physical bodies moving in space to music.

"People really respond to us," Mead said. "If you release yourself to the experience, you'll be transported."


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