There were so many ways the musicians could have upstaged the dancers at Friday’s performance of Jessica Lang Dance and the National Symphony Orchestra. The Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall stage was full of action before the dancing even began, starting with the take-charge physical presence of Leila Josefowicz. The tall, glamorous guest violinist strode onstage in a gust of black silk as if she carried her own weather.
Then there was the winged vitality of conductor Thomas Wilkins, and the rolling, washing movement of the string section as it navigated the building mysteries of John Adams’s Violin Concerto.
Where was there any room for dancers in all of this?
The choreographer answered with the best possible placement: In the chorister seats above and behind the stage, facing the audience. Lang’s “Scape,” an absorbing and consistently surprising dance that had its world premiere as part of the “New Moves: symphony + dance” festival, sneaked up on us. The disorienting, otherworldly atmosphere of Adams’s concerto was carried into those elevated seats as the dancers slowly materialized where we least expected them, blooming like alien spores.
How soft and appealing they looked, wearing leggings and T-shirts in muted shades of purple and green. But they also were eerily detached. The ambiguity was magnetic: Were the dancers friends or foes? A mere collection of shapes or a slumber party? One draped dangerously over the railing; others bounded across the armrests. The nine of them clustered for a synchronized arm ballet, saluting this way and that.
Lang has a gift for conveying emotion with exquisite simplicity. When one man abruptly walked away, a woman reached out slowly with her leg in a way that — ever so lightly — suggested the ache of longing. He reappeared, moonwalking backward across an upper row, oblivious to the heartache below. I kind of hated him for that.
“Scape” took on a Hitchcockian feel as the music grew strained and tick-tocky, with Josefowicz’s violin cutting through like a drizzle of hot oil. The dancers clumped together, gazing about twitchily, like anxious birds. Suddenly one appeared against a side pillar, pinned there by a spotlight. What was his crime? Josefowicz was accusing him of something. Her charging, keening argument grew, and Lang wisely shifted the focus to her alone. The dancers disappeared from view.
When they reappeared quietly on the stage below, they stood rapt, as we all were, by the violinist’s vigor.
Mismanaging the visual traffic is the biggest risk in pairing dancers and musicians onstage. This was the problem last week when Keigwin + Company joined the NSO for performances of excerpts from Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town” and “On the Waterfront.” Scattered across the stage with the busy musicians behind them, Keigwin’s dancers were an attractive irrelevance. But Lang had carefully thought through the potential pitfalls. Her choreography responded to both the musical and visual rhythms of the orchestra.
The dancers also humanized the Adams concerto, warming up a cerebral, often astringent score. Once they took control of the stage, they jiggled and spun to the musical storm, turning the space into a carnival; they glided with lighthearted ease as the music slashed and churned. How energizing it was to see these fearless frolickers — our ideal selves — waltzing around, taming that wrathful sound so that it, too, finally swirled with equal joy.
At the end, as the dancers bowed to the enthusiastic audience response, no one applauded them more heartily than the beaming Josefowicz. Here was a testament to the dancers’ success: The violinist had been watching them, too.