No longer the bright, shining beacon of American industrialism it once was, I was surprised to hear I’d be traveling to Detroit to see, of all things, contemporary dance. As I drove past the countless city streets full of shuttered and crumbling homes, I wondered how long it would take this once prominent and vibrant city to transform itself into an attractive destination once again. The answer, I was surprised to find, was taking root in the resurgence of a flourishing arts culture in the heart of downtown.
I had traveled to see Jessica Lang Dance, an up-and-coming company led by choreographer Jessica Lang (not to be confused with the actress Jessica Lange). The young company, founded in 2011, has made huge strides in the years since its inception. I was excited to learn more about this contemporary group and see some of their work.
I walked the one block between my hotel and the beautiful Detroit Music Hall for the Performing Arts, dodging rowdy Detroit Tigers fans on their way to Comerica Park, picked up my ticket at Will Call and took my seat. I was vaguely aware of what I was about to see. I had read enough about the company to know their repertoire takes a lot of inspiration from art and visual design – heck, even Dance Magazine named Lang a “a master of visual composition” – but that was just the tip of the iceberg.
The first piece the company performed was one they will bring to the Carlson Family Stage on the company’s stop at Northrop February 13. Lines Cubed, quite literally, brings Piet Mondrian’s infamous primary color block paintings to life. Nine exquisitely trained dancers take the stage, wearing costumes in black, red, yellow, and blue, the signature colors of Mondrian’s most famous painting.
The dancing was imaginative in the fact that it gave each color a personality of its own. Red was passion and fire. Yellow was happiness. Blue was melancholy. Halfway through this piece the woman sitting to my right leaned over and noted that her daughter was one of the blue dancers. How cool!
The next piece – departing entirely from the high-energy and electricity of what we had just seen – was called The Calling. The curtain opened on a single dancer in the middle of the stage dressed in a white dress that was so long it fanned out over the entire dance floor and off into the wings, making it appear as if this woman was rooted in place by the very fabric she wore. In a way, it reminded me of the Greek tragedy of Apollo and Daphne, wherein Daphne is transformed into a laurel tree and is doomed to stay in one place for the rest of eternity. The stunning dancer never moved her feet, instead relying on her torso, upper body, and arms to tell the beautiful story. The whole performance lasted no more than four minutes and I’m not sure I took a breath the entire time.
The third - and perhaps my favorite - piece was Among the Stars. The duet featured two dancers portraying star-crossed lovers who, due to their specific locations in the night sky, were separated by the Milky Way Galaxy. Once a year, “when the stars aligned,” they were reunited. The piece was not only visually stunning (a long, flowing, gossamer piece of fabric is used to represent the Milky Way), but the score was beyond beautiful. It was composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, who has written scores for some well-known movies including Babel, The Last Emperor, and most recently, The Revenant starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
The last piece we’ll see when this amazing company takes the stage is i.n.k. This work is so completely unique I have never seen anything quite like it. The backdrop is a 40-foot video screen playing a film of ink droplets flying and splashing across the screen. The dancers, dressed in black, personify ink drops and interact with the video projections in choreographed movement. The stamina of the dancers, as they keep up with the alternatingly fast-paced ink splashes as well as the slowed images of ink creeping across the screen, is unbelievable. I was out of breath at the end of the piece.
This is a company to keep an eye on. Its extremely unique repertoire and the unparalleled talent and creativity Ms. Lang employs when creating her work is extraordinary. I walked out of the theater feeling a whole new energy and vibrancy in the city that had fallen on hard times, but now seems on the verge of rebirth. It’s amazing what a night of great dance can do.
Get your tickets now to see Jessica Lang Dance at Northrop on February 13. You won’t regret it.