American Ballet Theatre’s 2018 fall season opened earlier this week with a program built entirely from the choreography of women: the world premiere of “Dream within a Dream (Deferred)” by Michelle Dorrance, an encore of “Le Jeune” by Lauren Lovette and a revival of “In the Upper Room” by Twyla Tharp.
As it happens, the evening also celebrated ABT’s “Women’s Movement,” a multi-year initiative that supports the creation of new works for at least three women choreographers per year — consisting of one work commissioned for the main company, another for the ABT Studio Company and a third piece to be workshopped for either.
Given the current, vibrant landscape of women choreographers working within the field (and adjacent to it), an evening dedicated to showcasing the work of women at a top-tier ballet company should not necessarily be notable, and yet it is.
“I have been dancing professionally for 10 years now as a ballerina, and I have never experienced an all-women’s evening in a major ballet company,” said choreographer and New York City Ballet principal Lauren Lovette over email. “I think younger women are going to look at opportunities like this and be inspired. That’s why it’s important. It’s important for the future women of the field.”
ABT’s formalized initiative aims to provide more of these opportunities by dedicating resources to not only present work by younger choreographers, like Lovette, but also to further showcase women who have been working and succeeding in the field, like the prolific Jessica Lang, whose piece “Garden Blue” premieres this Friday as part of the “Women’s Movement.” Lang’s new premiere will mark the 102nd piece that she has created over her 20-year career. It also marks her fifth commission with ABT and her second choreographed on the main company.
Set against a 36-foot tall and 60-foot wide backdrop of blue and green, “Garden Blue” also brings in the voice of another woman: artist Sarah Crowner. “I love Sarah’s work. I think it’s bright, optimistic,” said Lang in an interview with ALL ARTS at the company’s studios last month. “It kind of brings out a spirit in me that is very colorful — it reflects the colors in her work.”
Clad in unitards and grouped into violet, red and orange couples with one free-agent in green and white (think of a blade of grass), seven dancers move within Lang’s fluid, nature-inspired work, set to the first three movements from Dvorak’s “Piano Trio No. 4 in E Minor ‘Dumky’.”
During a preview of the piece at the Guggenheim’s “Works & Process” series earlier this month, Crowner explained that her work, which ranges from ceramic tile installations to canvas collage paintings stitched together with an industrial sewing machine, relates to dance in its gestural movements. Here, a slice of color could mimic, say, the articulation of a dancer’s arm.
Uniting Lang’s choreography and Crowner’s visual art in a more intimate arrangement on the stage are three wooden objects that take on the shape and precarious weightlessness of the helicopter seed pods that spin down from sycamore trees. As the piece progresses, the dancers interact with these sculptural objects, arching their backs over the crook of the wings, for example.
“In this work, I ride the line between the art and the music that is inspiring the dance,” said Lang of creating “Garden Blues.” “I’m very fluid in my range of what I like to create and what I’m inspired by, so I think this is a really nice complement to my last work ‘Her Notes’ on the company in 2016.”
Lang’s inclusion in ABT’s “Women’s Movement” marks an interesting tension inherent to the initiative. “It’s kind of delicate for me,” said Lang. “Nobody ever wants to be measured by a ruler that isn’t the same for everyone. I don’t want to be judged because I’m over here in this pool of people. I want to be with everyone else, and then when I get the opportunity, that feels good. It feels like I’ve achieved something, and there’s no excuse why I received the opportunity.”
In terms of ABT’s initiative helping to repair the imbalance of women in director and choreographic roles, Lang said that she hopes “the result is that in 10 years we’re not talking about it; that it just is. That we are choreographers and the work is what we all look at and judge. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a man or a woman. It’s made by a thoughtful craftsman, working intelligently and for the world.”
Top Image: Catherine Hurlin, Katherine Williams, James Whiteside and Jessica Lang in rehearsal for "Garden Blue."