An Evening with Lang and Maruyama: Exploring the “Purity of Means”

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“Purity in art consists in the acceptance, willing acceptance, of the limitations of the medium of the specific art.” –Clement Greenberg, Toward a Newer Laocoon, 1940

Last Saturday, I helped organize a gathering of Southern Methodist University students and professors who attended a reception at the Trammel Crow Museum of Asian Art in conjunction with the Texas premiere of Jessica Lang Dance. This event was hosted by TITAS (Texas International Theatre Arts Society) and showcased KUSHO, the thrilling ink and water collision photographs by Japanese artist Shinichi Maruyama.

In 2010, New York based choreographer Jessica Lang collaborated with Maruyama in order to produce a multidimensional dance work entitled i.n.k. Using raw footage from these collisions of ink and water in space, Lang created a video that would project onto the backdrop of the stage for the duration of her piece. This piece closed the Texas premiere of her dance company, affording the perfect opportunity for those who attended the reception to benefit from seeing the original monumental photographs that had initially inspired Lang.

Guests of the reception received the collection of photographs with mystified, yet captivated stares. It appeared as though they were equally interested in the process of capturing these elements in motion, as they were amazed by the immediate visual affect. While the instigation of Maruyama’s work was drawn from the Japanese idiom “writing in the sky,” the English translation of KUSHO, his work embodies much more immediate thematic material. His images infer universal qualities of grace and authority through a simple program of movement, suspension, and texture. By having an explicit understanding of his medium of choice, Maruyama is able to infuse movement and vibrancy into materials that we normally identify as stagnant.

After meandering through the Dallas Arts District to the Winspear Opera House, our group was ready to see what Lang was able to fashion in collaboration with such a coherent and vibrant visual artist.

The five pieces of Jessica Lang choreography primed the audience for the resulting presentation of I.n.k. I was especially taken by Lang’s work Lines Cubed, which constructed a Piet Mondrian painting using the movement characteristics of the dancers to embody the abstract nature of each module of color, along with representing the black lines that held these colors in place. As an Art History major currently enrolled in a Post-War Art class, I jumped out of my seat as I contemplated how this movement embodied an enhanced understanding of the art theory of the twentieth-century abstract movement. However, in the pre-show talk Lang mentioned that, “there is no exclusivity in my work”—meaning that her intelligent handling of the concepts of visual arts and dance is not meant to act as an exclusive club of people who simply “understand” what she is trying to say.

In thinking about her statement, I turned to my friend in the audience, an accounting major at SMU with little exposure to contemporary dance and visual art. She explained to me that she appreciated the exciting contrasting energies of each “color segment” and how each fit together to fill the stage space. Lang said herself that she aims to “fill the space with action.” Lang’s choreographic successes existed with this handling of action, mainly because this is what resonates with an audience.

The visual and physical forms within Lang’s works acted as the content. Yes, she spoke directly to visual art tradition, but her main focus was executing the “essence” of dance through her formalist manipulation of materials, creating shapes, forms, and relationships. Materials in the sense of costume fabric or prop items on the stage, along with a more universal approach to constructing dance choreography, clearly constructed as movement vocabulary. It is the way in which she arranged and moved bodies and objects on the stage that breed movement vitality. Her pieces were in no way hedonistic or indulgent. Lang simply presented a specific collection of themes and ideas and develops them through her playful manipulation of the medium.

This type of approach to movement creation was fully manifested in i.n.k. The piece began by identifying the two players in the space: the human body and the ink on the screen. However, Lang defined them through the interactions they elucidate between each other. The dancer, cast in silhouette at the edge of the backdrop, mimicked the undulating liquid, while the swelling of the ink began to embody more humanistic qualities by association.

As the dance progressed Lang paralleled the increase of ink and motion on the screen with the number of dancers and their exertion of force in the space. She continued to identify the flat surface of the projection with the motion of the dancers by then having the dancers react and be influenced by the ink on the screen. She explored a wide range of dynamics while doing this, using dance instances like a luscious duet and a perky group of acrobatic dancers to emulate the film and to bring the two dimensionality of the ink into the dynamic three-dimensional stage space.

Lang played with the variables of time, space, movement, and matter, which were readily available to her, while maintaining the identity of the dancer’s relationship to the undulating and splashing ink. There was a clear repetition of movement phrases and certain quality of tone the dancers maintain throughout the piece. However, there was a constant component of surprise and wonderment as to what move this giant living body of ink would make next. In this sense, there was a ceaseless percolation of movement that remained true to the happenings on the screen.

Jessica Lang informed the audience in the pre-show talk of a little inside joke about the title of this piece. After Maruyama suggested Lang use something other than the word KUSHO for her work she settled upon “ink”. It wasn’t until the production manager placed three dots between each of the letters that the company realized the irony of choosing that particular word; I.n.k or “It’s-not-KUSHO.” Comparing the KUSHO exhibition to the Jessica Lang Dance performance would be juxtaposing two unmistakably different observer experiences. Lang took the instantaneous effect of the two-dimensional KUSHO photographs in a museum setting, and proceeded to develop and transform the raw material into an ephemeral and stimulating experience of Opera House proportions.

Most individuals who are not familiar with productions of contemporary dance greatly underestimate their ability to assert continuous dynamic action without relying on a tired dramatic historical plot. By focusing on the medium-specific elements of dance, taking them to their extremes, and realizing the limitations of the medium, Lang was able to formulate pure action. Jessica Lang Dance has reminded the Dallas dance scene that choreography does not have to take on anecdotal or figurative modes of expression in order to be artistically fulfilling and entertaining.

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