Her Door to the Sky: Q&A with choreographer Jessica Lang

PNB’s upcoming HER STORY program features three of our favorite choreographers: Twyla Tharp (Afternoon Ball), Crystal Pite (Plot Point), and Jessica Lang (Her Door to the Sky). You can get a taste of all three groundbreaking choreographers’ work this November 3–12 at McCaw Hall, but if you can’t wait until then, you’re in luck.

We had a chance to talk with Jessica Lang about Her Door to the Sky, which premiered at Jacob’s Pillow in the summer of 2016 and debuted in Seattle early this year.

ABOUT THE PIECE

  • Title: Her Door to the Sky
  • World Premiere: August 24, 2016 by PNB at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival
  • Seattle Premiere: March 17, 2017 by PNB at McCaw Hall
  • Music: Benjamin Britten (Simple Symphony, Op. 4, 1933-1934)
  • Scenery and Choreography by Jessica Lang
  • Costumes by Bradon McDonald (former dancer with Mark Morris Dance Group, finalist on Project Runway)
  • Inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe’s Patio Door series, painted between 1946-1956

[This Q&A has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.]

Tell us about your research for this piece.

Because of my extensive research on female artists, I knew Georgia O’Keeffe’s centennial of her first solo exhibit in NYC was happening this year. I also did my research to see what was going on in Seattle [at the time of PNB’s premiere of Her Door to the Sky in March 2017] where we could connect audiences of various artistic interests.

When I saw Seattle Art Museum had an exhibit opening called Landscapes, I knew PNB should get the O’Keeffe inspired ballet. This was not a coincidence. I always create my work with the thoughtfulness of connections to the community [where] it is performed.

HerDoor17-0409
Sarah Ricard Orza and Company dancers in Her Door to the Sky, choreography © Jessica Lang.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s patio door paintings seem like the most obvious inspiration for the scenery and costume design of this piece. What influence (if any) did O’Keeffe serve the choreography?

I made a trilogy of works that focus on “HER.” So whoever that person is – [that’s] how I focused my process. A month after making Her Door to the Sky, I made Her Notes for American Ballet Theatre; that was to the music of Fanny Mendelssohn. I wanted to prove that throughout history, women have been making great art. I focused on this because I am constantly getting asked about being a woman in a male-dominated field.

I don’t dare think I am a success because I am a woman. I just point to those in the past and say, they did it. I am not the first. Let’s just keep creating – focus on the work. It is about the quality of the work. Never about or because of the gender of who it is by.

How did you and Bradon McDonald collaborate on the costumes?

[It] was a back and forth – I tell him the subject and the concept and share the music, and then I let him have his creative time to make ideas and propose them to me…we eventually settle on what is created. He takes the steering wheel and I follow and share my thoughts as we go.

We have a great relationship and the more we work together, the less back and forth happens. It’s just a natural shared vision.

I LOVE the PNB costumes. He really made remarkable designs and it was made possible because he had access to the great team in the PNB costume shop and great materials to work with. The costume shop was able to really dive in and show their skill with these costumes. It was an exciting process for everyone, which we are all really proud of.

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Bradon McDonald, Jessica Lang, and PNB Company dancers.

Did you find any aspect of creating Her Door to the Sky particularly challenging?

I think the challenge was probably that we created it right before the premiere. There was no time for the piece to sink in or for me to stall in the creation process to say, “I can come back to fix that.” It is what it is, as it was happening.

There are pros and cons to creating like this. It is fresh and new for the dancers so we can see that in the performance. It is rehearsed well because we have been spending time in the creation process, cleaning it right away. But it means that the costumes had to be created before the dance is even cast. So the pressure to put it all together is intense, but we were successful.

JessicaLang_rehearsal_LT_46
Jessica Lang and her assistant, Clifton Brown.

HOW CRITICS REACTED

The movement – sometimes suggesting folk dance, or poses on a Grecian urn – is soft and pleasing, particularly Sarah Ricard Orza’s delicate solo, in which her sweeping skirt seems to be a paintbrush.

Moira Macdonald, The Seattle Times

Beautiful…. Beyond steps, this ballet lifted us up and was lovely, sweet without being sentimental, clever in its use of the set as framing the dancers in several ways, and satisfying with its logical conclusion.

Dean Spear, Critical Dance

It is an enticing experience, homage to the sublime drama of Georgia O’Keeffe’s art by an equally talented woman choreographer. Women are central to dance, but rare birds as choreographers in a professional still dominated by men. Bravo to Director Peter Boal for choosing Jessica Lang.

Sharon Cumberland, Seattle Gay News

The group-work in this piece is phenomenal – from the intricacies of the male dancers lifting a solo ballerina as she dips and dives across the stage, to the small details like a quartet of women making their entrance by slowly appearing in the smaller windows below.

Morgan McMurray, KCTS-9

It shows off the company’s wide-ranging abilities, especially the seamless transitions between lifts, standing work, and the floor. Long ombre dresses swirl and flourish with every kick and leap.

Rachel Gallaher, City Arts

Like the liquid silver of Southwest Indian jewelry, Sarah Ricard Orza leads an ensemble of nine through Lang’s elegant, fluid movements.

Alice Kaderlan, Seattle PI

The Lang work is a joy to watch…Bradon McDonald’s flowing dresses are in desert flower colors. [Company members dance] as partners but with a rushing flow of smooth, kaleidoscopic movement.

Philippa Kiraly, The SunBreak

HerDoor17-0057
Company dancers in Her Door to the Sky.

HER STORY runs November 3–12.

Get tickets!

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