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Step by Step

Tucson is fortunate to witness the works of Jessica Lang, a choreographer on the rise

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Rising choreographer

Jessica Lang has impeccably cool credentials.

She just won New York's BESSIE Award for Outstanding Emerging Choreographer. Her critically acclaimed troupe is based in the Big Apple and she routinely travels the world composing new dances for leading companies.

But she has spent the last two weeks creating her latest work in the tiny town of Wickenburg, Arizona.

"It's been fabulous," Lang said by phone last week. She and her eponymous company, Jessica Lang Dance, were awarded an artist residency in the Made in Wickenburg program sponsored by the desert town's Del E. Webb Center for the Performing Arts.

Her new Wickenburg work, "The Wanderer," is her longest yet, "my first story ballet," she said excitedly. Arizonans won't see it though, at least not now: the piece will not debut until December, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Luckily, while Lang is still in the Grand Canyon State, she'll bring a sampling of her other dances down the highway to the UA's Stevie Eller Dance Theatre. Jessica Lang Dance will give three concerts, performing five dances live; a Lang dance will be featured in an experimental movie.

Lang's lush choreography is "in between modern dance and ballet," she explained. "I do both. I combine qualities and techniques."

Her dancers are sometimes barefoot like modern dancers, other times on pointe like ballerinas. Her beautiful costumes are reminiscent of ballet – "The Calling, " a 2006 solo on the program, a lyrical piece set to music by the Trio Mediaeval, has Kana Kimura performing in a white skirt so long and full it pools out across the stage.

And her arty stage sets borrow from modernist visual art – the opening number "Lines Cubed" (2012) is inspired by the sleek geometries of painter Piet Mondrian. Danced by all nine members of the company, "It has his great lines and color blocking in black, red, yellow and blue," Lang said.

She grew up a ballet kid in Bucks County outside Philadelphia, and her ballet skills got her into Juilliard. But during college she hired out as a modern dancer. Before graduation she was already dancing with Twyla Tharp. She stayed with Tharp only two years.

"It was an intense job and I got to travel and see the world," she said. "It was exactly what I needed. But I realized I didn't want to be a dancer. I wanted to try choreographing."

Almost immediately, she won a competition to set a work on Chicago's Hubbard Street Dance 2, and then a commission from New York's American Ballet Theatre to create a piece for ABT II. In the years since, she's choreographed some 80 dances, for the National Ballet of Japan, Birmingham Royal Ballet in England, Pennsylvania Ballet – and for herself.

She started her own company in 2011 during a residency at New York's Joyce Theater in New York. The residency's "time, money and space" allowed her to work for the first time with dancers of her own, and "to dive deeper into my creative process."

Even so, she enjoys collaborating with other artists. The dance "i.n.k.," also on the Tucson program, is inspired by visual artist Shinichi Maruyama, whose fluid ink prints will be projected onto the back stage wall while seven dancers perform. Maruyama also worked with her on "White: A Dance on Film." "It can never be done live," Lang explained. "I tried my hand at different speeds; it includes both slow motion and double time in one frame."

The concert has one full-out ballet pas de deux. "Among the Stars," from 2010, is danced by Laura Mead and Clifton Brown, a former Ailey dancer who has dazzled Tucson audiences during the Ailey troupe's frequent appearances in town. Leaving Ailey in 2011 and joining Lang, Brown is a superb dancer who was born, raised and trained in Arizona.

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