Before opening her company in 2011, a mere eight years ago, Jessica Lang danced for Twyla Tharp’s company THARP! As might be expected, Lang’s choreography is filled with seamlessly blended movement from a number of traditions – from ballet to ballroom, from modern to folk. All that was on display as her company of nine wonderful dancers moved through four of Lang’s signature pieces this past week at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, courtesy of San Francisco Performances.

Kana Kimura in The Calling (Jessica Lang Dance)
© Sharen Bradford

Unfortunately, Lang’s choreography lacks the hectic drollness and biting originality of Tharp’s, and while accessible it is also sweeter and blander – anodyne, conceptually and technically. 

On the program, the most effective piece was Thousand Yard Stare – an ensemble piece on war set to the adagio movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15, and played by One Found Sound, a San Francisco–based string quartet. The thousand-yard stare refers to unfocused gaze of soldiers, their emotionally blank eyes set on the distance, and it has become a metaphor for horrifying emotional detachment.

Dressed in fatigues on an open stage revealing black walls and rigging, two dancers moved in exaggerated steps, leaning diagonally forward then diagonally back, toward a line of dancers standing motionless and perpendicular to the audience. The stage was washed in a sickly green light. Costumes were by Brandon McDonald; lighting by Nicole Pearce.

Added to the dancers’ rocking bodies were sudden phrases of percussive stomps and slaps. The ensemble knotted into small groups, finally settling into lines of repeated close positions: standing shoulder to shoulder, or seated nested between each other’s spread legs in a line on the floor, or intertwined in a line of closely placed downward-facing dog so that one-by-one they could disengage and crawl through the inverted bodies of their fellow dancers. The lines dissolved and reformed, dissolved and reformed.

The dance vocabulary was modern, but based, like marching, on an overstated form of walking. This was in striking contrast to the emotive and complex rhythms of the Beethoven. It was as if music and dance were two parallel universes, disconnected but not discordant, living separate existences. That separation most fittingly described the mind of the soldier of the thousand-yard stare.

Also evocative was The Calling, a short solo set to Trio Medieval’s recording of “O Maria, stella maris” (O Mary, star of the sea), the gorgeous plainsong prayer from the eighth century. When the curtain opened, dancer Kana Kimura was standing in the center of the stage, her back to the audience. She was in a fitted white gown with skirts trailing out in a huge circle that radiated over a third of the stage like a huge white moon fallen to earth. The skirts were like the drone in the song, a pervasive grounding presence.

Almost all of the dancing was gestures of hands and arms, at times brief and staccato. Occasionally, the dancer slowly bent her knees and seemed to be dissolving into the skirts around her as if she were sinking in an ocean, only to rise again. Sudden twists of her torso gathered the skirts around her, separating her and defining her from the circle of white.

The opening piece was Lyric Pieces (2013) set to short piano pieces by Grieg, which were beautifully played by Sarah Cahill. Almost all of the vocabulary in the piece was balletic, with a nod here and there to folk dance, notably in the “March of the Trolls.” The piece was enlivened by long panels of Molo partitions in patterns designed by Stephanie Forsythe and Todd MacAllen. These honeycombed paper walls and dividing partitions of various sizes had a delightfully snappy sound as the dancers unrolled and extended them into walls, fans, chairs and, well, things. They also moved like a Slinky. Somehow they didn’t save the otherwise banal choreography.

The program ended with This Thing Called Love, Lang’s tribute to Tony Bennett. With the dancers in modified suits and black ties, the dance alternated between Bennett’s songs and voice-overs in which he talks simply and charmingly about his life as a singer. Milan Misko led the ensemble for the most part, and he is a handsome dancer, tall, lyrical and fluid.