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As anyone who has heard Tony Bennett sing can confirm, there’s something tangible about the sounds he creates, something you can’t quite put into words. It’s as if you need to jump into another realm to search for better adjectives, or in the case of choreographer Jessica Lang, you forget words, switch mediums altogether, and describe with dance what words cannot.
Although no substitute for Bennett himself, “This Thing Called Love,” a contemporary ballet making its West Coast premiere at the Irvine Barclay Theatre Friday, September 28 paired familiar songs with vibrant contemporary dance in a way that captured the charisma and verve that runs throughout Bennett’s body of work.
Jessica Lang Dance presented this new work as a celebration of the music of Bennett and celebrate is just what it did. What could have easily materialized as a gimmicky, thematic grouping of fun songs, instead was a thoughtful exploration by Lang of the way movement uncovers additional layers of Bennett’s music.
Beginning with a projected flash of glitter and an excerpt of the “Cole Porter Medley” before moving into “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” the 22-minute musical medley included “Crazy Rhythm,” “Smile,” “It Don’t Mean A Thing” and “For Once In My Life.” The songs were punctuated by voice recordings of Bennett, each of which served as a soundtrack for a solo. The 9 dancers in the work performed spiritedly as they moved through Lang’s clever fusion of contemporary modern dance and swing and jazz choreography.
The tender performance of “Smile” by Kana Kimura and Jammie Walker was a standout moment within the greater “This Thing Called Love” piece, and Milan Misko, who often appeared as the Bennett character, embodied the easy-going, swing-style movement quite naturally.
Missing from this presentation of “This Thing Called Love” was the visual art created by Bennett (or Anthony Benedetto as he goes by in the art world) because of what can only be assumed was a technical difficulty. Projections of images such as the New York City skyline or the Golden Gate Bridge were not a part of the show on Friday night, but the dancing held its own.
You might describe Lang’s choreography as something akin to architecture — she creates environments on stage that dancers can move through and in. As a choreographer, she pays special attention to the balance of her movement composition so that no one area of the design outshines another. Even in the case of “glow,” where a curved neon light (designed by Lang and Nicole Pearce) hung over stage right, the five male dancers in the piece remained the focus.
“Lyric Pieces,” the first dance of the night and also the most traditionally balletic in the program, made use of several accordion-like props that were fanned out in a variety of different ways to create a landscape for the piece. Designed by Stephanie Forsythe and Todd MacAllen, these props served, at times, as large enclosures that the dancers appeared and disappeared behind, or as cubes, fans, and even once laid flat as a winding river. The mood of the piece changed to reflect the music in each of the 10 sections and the dancers’ execution was full of sensitivity and unaffected clarity of movement.
Another remarkable moment of Jessica Lang Dance’s engagement at the Barclay was “The Calling,” the choreographer’s signature solo, which was originally premiered by the Ailey II company in 2006. The stunningly lithe Kana Kimora, in a white skirt that pooled widely across most of the stage, twisted, flexed and arched her torso in a dance that is all about the expression of the performer’s upper body. Nearly invisible movements of the feet resulted in the skirt twisting around Kimura’s legs in a statuesque spiral of stirring captivity.
The most compelling aspect of Lang’s work is her visually rich use of the stage. Dancers, sets, props and the often striking use of lighting (primarily designed by the notable Nicole Pearce) are all paint in the metaphor of the performance space as Lang’s blank canvas.
Everything works together to form a seamless whole. The Jessica Lang Dance repertoire highlights a company that balances the crispness of ballet with the athleticism and innovative movement of contemporary dance.
Kaitlin Wright is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at email@example.com