Pearl Lang: A Choreographer Between Two Worlds

The following is a guest post from Chava Lansky, one of the Music Division’s Fellows from this past summer. Dance Archivist Libby Smigel introduces her.

Meet Chava Lansky, a recent graduate of Barnard College where she wrote a senior thesis on dance autobiographies. With her strong interest in dance history and research on Martha Graham’s autobiography Blood Memory, she was an excellent fit for our summer work to advance Martha Graham’s legacy. In addition to the Martha Graham Collection, the Library of Congress has the papers of many of the Graham company’s outstanding dancers, many of whom distinguished themselves in choreography, performance on Broadway, or education. The Pearl Lang Papers was Chava’s choice: a 60-box collection that offers evidence of Lang’s contributions to the Graham company but also her willingness to explore her Jewish heritage for inspiration in her own choreography. The collection is now fully described, and the Music Division expects a searchable finding aid to be posted online by the end of this year. In the meantime, please share Chava’s experience with us as she describes the work she did this past summer.

Summer Fellow Chava Lansky shows off boxes from the Pearl Lang Collection. Photo credit: Libby Smigel.

Of all the American dance innovators in the twentieth century, it is modern dance choreographer Martha Graham who remains a household name. Graham’s achievements are a crucially important part of the evolution of modern dance, yet her myriad accomplishments and insistence on leaving behind an airtight legacy leave little room in her narrative for the artists who surrounded her and helped to bolster her work. The Music Division houses Graham’s collection, but has also made a concerted effort to acquire the papers of the early Graham dancers tasked with bringing her choreography to life.

Portrait of Pearl Lang, Undated, Photographer Unknown. Pearl Lang Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

As a Junior Fellow in the Music Division, I’ve focused my summer on Pearl Lang, the Graham dancer best known for taking on Martha’s repertory roles after she weaned herself from the stage. In addition to her work with Graham, Lang created her own company in 1953 and choreographed roughly 50 works, more than half of which were based on Jewish themes. I was drawn to Lang for this reason. As society at large becomes more focused on identity politics, the contemporary and postmodern dance worlds have followed suit, with choreographers producing works that celebrate and grapple with the complexities of culture. Yet having grown up deeply steeped in Ashkenazi Jewish culture, I feel that this part of my identity is often left off the table when it comes to dance. But Pearl Lang was a trailblazer. While Graham was making dances based on Hellenic myths, Lang turned to her own culture for inspiration.

Pearl Lang, née Lack, was born in 1921 to immigrant parents in Chicago. Her mother, Freida, had grown up the daughter of a rabbi in White Russia but fled to the United States when the violence of the pogroms intensified. Lang grew up in a socialist family involved with the arts, with Yiddish as her first language. In 1964 she married actor Joseph Wiseman, and both maintained a lifelong involvement with Yiddish theater. Though the impetus behind Lang’s repertory is varied, much of her work stems from Yiddish poetry, music, and literature, most notably in the example of Lang’s seminal work The Possessed.

Draft of letter from Lang to Woody Allen, December 19, 1985. Pearl Lang Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

The Possessed is based on the 1914 Yiddish play The Dybbuk, written by Jewish Russian ethnographer Sholem Ansky. Ansky originally titled the work Tsvishn Tsvey Veltn, which translates to “Between Two Worlds.” This title refers to the play’s plot of a heartbroken young man’s spirit returning after death to possess the body of his beloved, and the ensuing themes of straddling the worlds of the living and the dead, good and evil, and the spiritual and quotidian. This sentiment clearly felt relevant to Lang, who herself was living between the worlds of modern dance and Yiddishkeit.

Lang’s first adaption of The Dybbuk was a pas de deux titled Legend originally performed in 1951 though much revised through 1954. With an original score by Morton Feldman, Legend focused on the moment that the dybbuk, or spirit, enters the protagonist Leye’s body. Lang danced the role of Leye, a part she held onto through the future versions of the piece. In 1974 Lang recreated the work, this time titling it The Possessed and expanding it to two hours in order to tell the whole story. The Possessed premiered in 1975 at the Kaufman Concert Hall at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. In the 1980s Lang revisited the work as a film project to save the piece for posterity, though production plans were stalled because of a lack of funding. With a renewed fundraising effort the film was completed in the early 2000s. (One request went to famed filmmaker Woody Allen; the records in the Pearl Lang Papers show that he donated $100 to the cause.)

Lang was one of many artists who found inspiration in Ansky’s words. Another notable dance interpretation is Jerome Robbins’ 1974 Dybbuk for New York City Ballet to a score of the same name by Leonard Bernstein. The play seems to speak deeply to Jewish American artists coming to terms with their own multiplicities of identity.

Lang passed away in 2009, but her legacy will live on in the Music Division’s Pearl Lang Papers. This brief exploration of Lang’s The Possessed provides just one example of the wealth of research opportunities that the collection contains. Lang was poised in the midst of the golden age of American modern dance, and understanding who she was as a dancer, choreographer, and person can help to not only flesh out the lore that surrounds Graham, but reinstate Lang to her rightful place in the canon of dance history.

Chava Lansky at Junior Fellows Display Day, presenting on Lang’s The Possessed.

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Chava Lansky graduated from Barnard College with a B.A. in Dance and English. Her undergraduate research focused on the role that dance writing and criticism play in dance history and historiography, centered on 20th-century dance autobiography. Chava is currently based in New York City where she works as an editor and writer for Pointe magazine.

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