Don't box them in. Their dancing belongs to the world.
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Don't box them in. Their dancing belongs to the world.
From top: Kathryn Gallagher, Elizabeth Stanley and Heather Lang in the musical "Jagged Little Pill,”at the Broadhurst Theater in New York, Nov. 20, 2019. In a show as physical as “Jagged Little Pill,” directed by Diane Paulus and choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Lang and fellow dancer Ebony Williams were doing more than dancing; they sang, acted and seamlessly moved scenery. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- As chorus members of “Jagged Little Pill” on Broadway, Heather Lang and Ebony Williams didn’t qualify for private dressing rooms. That news was disconcerting, at least to me. Although the musical — like everything else — is on hiatus because of the outbreak of the coronavirus, it’s worth knowing that they were two of the show’s shining stars, delivering sophisticated dance eight times a week.

“Dance is the orphan art,” Lang said before a performance in February. “We’re in the ensemble even though we’re featured. And some of what we do is just as hard as the principals.”

In a show as physical as “Jagged Little Pill,” directed by Diane Paulus and choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, they were doing more than dancing. They sang, acted and — seamlessly — moved scenery. For each, the draw was Cherkaoui, the popular Belgian contemporary choreographer whose movement, slippery and fluid, makes use of the entire body; it isn’t typical Broadway ta-da.

That makes them a good fit. The dance history in their bodies is astounding: Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and “KPOP” for Williams, 37; the Radio City Rockettes, “An American in Paris,” Beth Gill, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” and “Fosse/Verdon” for Lang, 38.

In February, Lang and Williams talked about how the show was positive for them but also a challenge. Both were traumatized by having to sing. And getting through eight shows a week posed another hurdle: Lang has had a hip replacement and is the mother of a young daughter. For this, she committed to being the strongest she could be. “I was like, I’m going to be a superhero,” she said. “I want to be bench pressing and dead lifting. It’s just so grueling.”

Williams, who is also the show’s assistant choreographer, took a different approach. “I’ve been doing a lot less,” she said. “Massage — I’m super muscular, so I need to find ways to make sure that my muscles are supple. And I listen to my body day to day.”

In the show, each dancer has a specific journey. In moments, Williams is a more mature version of Frankie Healey, the black adopted daughter of Mary Jane Healy, or M.J., who is raising her daughter in a white environment. M.J. also has a drug problem. (In this show, the issues pile up.) At times, Lang plays a younger, free-spirited version of M.J. She has a standout overdose scene: a haunting duet with M.J. that takes place on a couch.

“People who have had drug overdoses will DM me on Instagram and be like, ‘I’ve never felt more seen,’” Lang said. “It makes me excited about dance, because I feel it has this capacity to create a lot of complexity.”

Much of Williams’ movement in the show isn’t set in stone. She has freedom, and on Broadway where highly structured improvisation is hardly the norm, that’s rare. “It’s like, ‘Stand on your number, do the thing,’” Lang said. “It’s never this, ever. It’s like a machine. It’s a factory. And so to have this is kind of an exciting space to be.”

Williams said her role — which deals with the black experience — was more or less left up to her to define. She sees herself as being directly connected to Frankie: In some places, she is her future, in others, her guardian. “At some points, I’m her spiritual woman,” Williams said. “Her inner peace.”

With Broadway shuttered for weeks that may stretch into months, Lang and Williams find themselves in a strange position of having a job, but not. They know they’re hardly alone. And Lang was sick for two weeks; although she wasn’t tested, her doctor was fairly certain it was the coronavirus. (She’s feeling better.)

“It’s really wild for all of us New Yorkers particularly,” Lang said. “We are in such a communal space, and it’s not like we have these like houses with a backyard. We are on top of each other — just doing laundry is lately like, what are we doing? How are we doing this?”

On two occasions — the second time in late March — Lang and Williams spoke about their range, their curiosity, their love of dance and now how not dancing is not an option. Here are edited excerpts from the conversations.

Q: Both of you have performed so many kinds of dance. Is it a restlessness?

LANG: Restlessness and also opportunity. I’ve always felt kind of like an outcast. This desire to be boxed in, to have a table, to have a thing — especially coming from a ballet background, which now I’m learning to appreciate more — was so damn traumatic. I was the worst at my ballet school.

I always felt like, where do I belong? Where is my community? I was told I was fat every day. Ballet is a lot. “We love her, but she a lot.”

Q: How did you break free?

LANG: I discovered contemporary dance, and it was as if, oh my God, I found home.

WILLIAMS: I like what you said about not being boxed in. I was bored with the idea of what a classical dancer was supposed to be, and my way [of dealing with it] was trying to make the things that make me imperfect feel good and graceful. To find ownership in the ugly in me and make it feel beautiful.

Q: The show is on hiatus. What does this mean at this point in your careers?

LANG: It isn’t as heart-wrenching as I think it would have been for me five years ago. Before the hip replacement, I didn’t know if I was ever going to dance again. So I kind of dealt with the death, if you will.

Q: How are you coping?

LANG: I do feel like eventually we’ll get back to something, and if it’s not this, who knows? I’m devastated, but I’m also — the word hopeful is spooky. But I feel hopeful.

Q: Ebony, what has it been like for you? One day you’re in the show and the next you’re at home.

WILLIAMS: It caused us to have to confront a lot of our own things in our own lives, at least for me. Even just based on the things that we tackle in the show — having time to really sit in that.

I’m looking forward to going back more than anything. I feel like I need it right now.

LANG: At first, I was very Debbie Downer — I could not figure out how I was going to be a mom, a teacher, a play date, cook food.

And I didn’t even dance for two weeks. It was so depressing. I felt no connection to my body. I started to feel better and I started moving. [Dancer] Neal Beasley and I are doing virtual dance classes together. I think it’s the one thing that’s going to get me through at this point.

Q: Ebony, are you taking any virtual classes or moving on your own?

WILLIAMS: I have done nothing but straighten my house and get things in order. I’ve been dealing with other things that have nothing to do with dance or my career at all. But I’ve been asked several times to teach or do something and I might.

LANG: It’s like professional athletes: to have this rug pulled from underneath you physically. It was so insane. I felt like my body went into shock. I would be up at night in my bed awake because the body is so used to being like, OK, at 8 p.m. we’re about to go dance. What’s happening?

Q: What do either of you do to get out of your heads at this point?

WILLIAMS: I wish I had more of a mature, better planned way, but I am just like anyone else. I distract myself.

LANG: For these last couple of weeks, I was like, I’m going into a full depression. But I knew I just had to be able to sit with this uncomfortableness and take it hour by hour, day by day; and if you have to, take it minute by minute.

I think that something shifted, which was health. Being sick can bring you down more. But I think the more that I just basically deal with the uncomfortableness, the more that I’m going to be able to move. The suffering will move, but it’s hard. It’s a very, very, very uncomfortable space.

WILLIAMS: I love watching what everyone’s doing with these virtual classes, but it’s also making me more depressed watching it. It makes you feel like you have to do something — but honestly we can just be still.

I don’t feel like pretending and being motivational right now. And I think there can be power in that.

LANG: This is a real opportunity to take stock of ourselves and be, deal, confront everything.

WILLIAMS: Exactly. Because I know that when we get back to normal, it’s just going to be the same thing. I don’t want to be the same after this. I just can’t be the same.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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