Birth of choreographer Pearl Lang
May 29, 1921
Pearl Lang is well-known both for her work as one of Martha Graham's principal soloists and for her own choreography. Born on May 29, 1921 and raised in Chicago, Lang choreographed her first dance—for a school class—at the age of ten. At sixteen, she made her debut at a Chicago opera house, choreographing and performing a dance to Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. In high school, she started her own dance company and also performed as part of a Works Progress Administration program. In 1941, Lang moved to New York to study with Martha Graham and soon became a member of Graham's company. She would remain with the company on and off until 1978. Known as one of Graham's most expressive soloists, she eventually took over some of Graham's own roles when the older dancer could no longer perform them.
With Graham's encouragement, Lang formed her own company in 1953. The first piece Lang choreographed for her new troupe was Song of Deborah (1955), a duet for two women. This was only the first of many Lang pieces with Jewish themes. Later the same year, she premiered Rites, a large work set to parts of three of Bartok's string quartets. A reviewer for the New York Times called it "dramatic in theme and not altogether clear in intent, but commanding the interest unflaggingly and frequently rising to brilliant heights." When Rites was danced by the Martha Graham Company two years later, a more skeptical reviewer questioned "whether most of the experiences of life in ritual form are ideal for choreography" but nevertheless wrote that "Miss Lang is one of our most important artists, and whatever she does justifies our interest and attention."
Other significant works include The Dybbuk, based on the Yiddish play; I Never Saw Another Butterfly, based on the writings of children of Theresienstadt; Tongues of Fire, inspired by prophetic writing; and three programs of dances based on Yiddish poetry. Lang told The Forward newspaper that her signature piece, Shira, is "devotional singing in movement."
In addition to work with her own company, Lang has choreographed commissioned works for the Netherlands National Ballet, the Batsheva Dance Company of Israel, and the Boston Ballet. She also choreographed dances for plays at the Yale Repertory Theater and the Shakespeare Festival, and taught at the Julliard School. Lang received numerous awards for her work. Among her honors are two Guggenheim fellowships and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture Annual Cultural Achievement Award. She also received awards from the American Dance Festival and from Artists and Writers for Peace in the Middle East. Her dance-drama, "The Time is Out of Joint," an adaptation of Hamlet, premiered in 2001. Lang died February 24, 2009.
To learn more about Pearl Lang, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia and We Remember.
Sources: Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 794-796; The Forward, September 28, 2001; New York Times, April 18, 1953, May 19, 1955, September 16, 2001, October 3, 2001.