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Choreographer Jessica Lang's homecoming dance

It takes years for Tony Award-winning shows to make it from Broadway to Philadelphia. But Jessica Lang earned a Bessie Award - the dance equivalent of a Tony - in October, and her work is opening at the Annenberg Center on Thursday.

Kana Kimura of Jessica Lang Dance in the choreographer's 'The Calling.' (SHAREN BRADFORD)
Kana Kimura of Jessica Lang Dance in the choreographer's 'The Calling.' (SHAREN BRADFORD)Read more

It takes years for Tony Award-winning shows to make it from Broadway to Philadelphia. But Jessica Lang earned a Bessie Award - the dance equivalent of a Tony - in October, and her work is opening at the Annenberg Center on Thursday.

Randy Swartz is thrilled. "We want to see the work she did last year in New York that won her that Bessie, and that's what we're bringing to Philadelphia audiences," says Swartz, the artistic director of Dance Celebration, which is presenting Jessica Lang Dance.

What makes Lang special? Swartz says, "If I had to sum it up in one word: genius." He describes Lang as "the child of Twyla Tharp and Paul Taylor. She's just very, very sharp, very smart. She's very, very talented.

"She brings to the table a skill set matched by few. She has an eye for the visual. There's a reason to what she does. Not just 'Let's fill up 20 minutes.' "

Lang is also one of us. Born in Allentown, raised in Doylestown, Lang went to Central Bucks West High School. Her introduction and commitment to dance started early.

"My sister wanted to start dancing first at 3. I started in her footsteps at 3, as well," Lang says. "My parents were commuting an hour to bring us to Bethlehem," to Miss Jeanne's School of the Arts, which she attended all through high school.

She also studied at the Pennsylvania Ballet School, with Susan Miller in Chestnut Hill, and at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet in Narberth.

Lang lives in New York now, as do her parents and sister, but the Philadelphia connections continue with her husband, Alvin Ailey dancer Kanji Segawa, who choreographs for students at the Metropolitan Ballet Academy in Jenkintown.

The Annenberg Center run is a homecoming for Lang and a Philadelphia premiere for her company.

The evening will feature six repertory pieces, including Lines Cubed, inspired by the work of Piet Mondrian; i.n.k., a collaboration with a visual artist; "a pas de deux en pointe"; and The Calling, a solo featuring a huge white skirt - "it's become an image of mine."

"The dress flows into the stage, and the dancer melts into the stage," Swartz says of The Calling.

Lang has made more than 80 pieces for dance companies around the world that have been presented at the Kennedy Center, Jacob's Pillow, and the Guggenheim Museum.

But in 2011, after 11 years as a successful free-lance choreographer, she was longing for an artistic home.

"I was making an average of eight to 10 works a year for pretty big companies. I'd get to know the dancers the first day and then two weeks later move on. I had very little time to relax, no time to play."

Fortuitously, the Joyce Theater in New York then offered her a residency. "They gave me time, space and money. No pressure. They said, 'If we gave you this space, what would you make?' "

With that security and freedom, she hired six dancers. In 2012, Jessica Lang Dance debuted at Jacob's Pillow.

Swartz understands how such opportunities came up for Lang.

"She has one thing we haven't seen much of lately," Swartz says, "an aesthetic that's incredibly pleasing. It's beautiful work, but it's not just pretty for pretty's sake. People can come and literally just feast their eyes on the company."

Lang first stepped on the stage at age 6 in Pennsylvania Ballet's The Nutcracker. By 15, her parents were driving her to and from New York City every day so she could take a class with a particular teacher at Steps, a high-powered studio. That long commute was a compromise.

"I pronounced to my parents that I was going to move to New York, quit school, and dance. They didn't say no" - at least not to New York and dance.

They understood. Lang's older sister, Stephanie, also went into dance, appearing in Cats on Broadway and in the national tour, and later as a Rockette for 10 years.

After Steps, Lang's teacher urged her to apply to Juilliard, and she went to the auditions with little fear - "I didn't know how hard it was to get in." She was one of the few in a sea of hopefuls offered a spot. She graduated in 1997.

Juilliard's director was Benjamin Harkarvy - who also directed Pennsylvania Ballet when she was in Nutcracker. He later encouraged Lang to audition for Twyla Tharp when an alumna mentioned an opening.

"I danced with Twyla Tharp before I actually graduated from Juilliard," Lang says. "We toured the world for two years. It's all fun, but what they don't teach you in school is the constant travel. I quickly realized it was the process [of learning and creating] that I loved."

When the company folded, Lang was ready for something different. "I had a really good heart-to-heart with myself." She had only choreographed a bit in school, but she thought the creative process was "how I was built."

Getting work as a choreographer is not easy if you don't have work to show, so Lang first reached out to schools and second companies. "I needed to practice. It's not like you could paint and paint and paint.

"The opportunities came quickly," she says. "My work kind of straddles the work between modern and ballet, and ballet companies needed choreographers."

Her first client was the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company; she then won a choreographic competition sponsored by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

When Roy Kaiser, then artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet, was looking to hire young choreographers, he called ABT for recommendations and was put in touch with Lang. In 2000, she made Undercurrents for Pennsylvania Ballet. It was her first work for a professional company, and it again brought her back to that first Nutcracker. Kaiser and the others she worked with making Undercurrents had been principal dancers in the company when she was a 6-year-old newbie.

Lang's homecoming this week is going to be special, Swartz says. "I've been doing this for 45 years now, and I don't know if there's 10 artists I've run across in their relative early stages that I've said, 'Aha, here's somebody we can watch and support.'

"She's an artist who I really think is going to be a significant contributor to the art form."


Jessica Lang Dance

7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 3680 Walnut St.

Tickets: $20-$50.

Information: 215-893-3900 or www.Annenbergcenter.orgEndText