Choreographer Jessica Lang’s new work, “Her Door to the Sky,” making its local premiere at PNB this week, is inspired by the “patio door” paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe.
Sometimes, art begets art.
Choreographer Jessica Lang’s new work, “Her Door to the Sky,” making its local premiere at Pacific Northwest Ballet next week, is inspired by the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe. Lang, first seen at PNB with “The Calling” in 2015, said in a recent interview that she was intrigued by this year’s centennial of O’Keeffe’s first solo exhibition in New York – it seemed a perfect opportunity to explore the artist and her work.
That research took Lang, specifically, to O’Keeffe’s “patio door” series, which began in the mid-1940s. O’Keeffe, inspired by the walled patio and black-painted door of her winter residence north of Santa Fe, created a number of paintings depicting a black door with boxlike shapes beneath it. The art plays with the geometric shapes of the patio; Lang’s ballet, featuring a backdrop with cutouts mirroring those shapes (a large opening suggesting a door, along with smaller windowlike squares through which dancers can be glimpsed), does the same.
Pacific Northwest Ballet: ‘Director’s Choice’
March 17-26, McCaw Hall, Seattle; $30-$187 (206-441-2424 or pnb.org).
“The way O’Keeffe painted them, they looked so flat — it looked like a drop in terms of a door with little windows, as opposed to a door with pavement stones,” said Lang, who designed the ballet’s set. “That’s an interpretation of her work — it’s not literally what she was drawing, it’s a way that it can be seen, and a way I thought would be interesting to view: holes in the drop. She painted them to appear as if it was all flat; she never gave a dimensional line.”
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“Her Door to the Sky,” made for 10 dancers, is set to Benjamin Britten’s “Simple Symphony.” “I was looking for something that gave that kind of support of pastoral grand vistas, this big feeling of space,” Lang said. The costumes, designed by Bradon McDonald (whose name might be familiar to watchers of “Project Runway”) feature “all those magnificent colors that can be found in the West, in the mountains” — vivid earth tones of rust, yellow, green.
Lang, a Juilliard graduate and artistic director of Jessica Lang Dance, has created more than 95 works on companies around the world. Many of them — such as her recent collaboration with architect Steven Holl, presented at Meany Center last November — reflect her interest in “how the body relates to everything around it — not just empty space, but the objects that are in the space as well, and how we create different environments with objects, be it fabric or design or projection. In some way, it’s about creating an overall work that encompasses more than just dance.”
“The Calling,” for example, features a dancer clad in an enormous white skirt that falls in vast, constricting folds; it both defines the dance and creates it. “The ballet didn’t come first — the skirt did,” said Lang, remembering the work’s origins. “I designed it, I asked a costume maker to make it, and I made the dance in it.”
Likewise, the set pieces for “Her Door to the Sky” were in the room as the dance was created. “Without that definition of space, and an understanding of where these little peeking windows are, it would all be left in my imagination. It’s better to create with the objects in space than to add them in later.”
“Her Door to the Sky” made its world premiere at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival last summer, and was Lang’s first experience setting a work on PNB’s full company. (“The Calling” is a solo work.) She enthusiastically spoke of the company’s strengths.
“They’re such a strong group of dancers in terms of technique and ability, but they also have a real sense of quality — they don’t seem to be stuck in any kind of ballet box. They seem to be able to do anything,” Lang said. “Their connection to the floor is something rare that you find in a ballet organization. They can stand up and do something so pristine and classically brilliant, and then drop to the floor and connect to it.” Though she wasn’t familiar with the company before Peter Boal’s arrival as artistic director in 2005, she observed that “the rep he has brought has made them very diverse dancers.”
“Her Door to the Sky” will be presented as part of a “Director’s Choice” repertory evening. Also on the bill: the U.S. premiere of David Dawson’s 2015 work, “Empire Noir,” and the return of William Forsythe’s “New Suite,” last seen here in 2015.