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Off the Wall

Choreographer Jessica Lang wants a painting to get up and move around.



If an artist can paint dancers (think Degas), can dancers perform paintings?

New York-based choreographer Jessica Lang thinks so, as she shows in her newest work, "Women and the Sea," inspired by the paintings of New England artist Will Barnet.

Artists continually call to one another across disciplines through color, sound, shape, movement and space. When Lang first saw Barnet's meditative "Women and the Sea" paintings, she says — with their elegant lines, simple forms, and sense of quiet longing — she thought they looked like a ballet.

A friend introduced Lang to Barnet at an art opening in New York a few years ago — he had been painting since the early '30s; she had been choreographing since the mid-'90s. Barnet's "Women and the Sea" series dates from time he spent in Maine during the 1970s and, of all his work, it most captivated Lang when she began to investigate him.

Last year, when Stoner Winslett asked Lang to create a new work for the Richmond Ballet (her third for the company), Lang approached Barnet to ask permission to use his images in her ballet. She'd also discovered a connection between Barnet and Richmond: One of his first museum shows was at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 1943. When she told the 96-year-old Barnet about her idea, Lang says, "He raised his fist and shook it in the air and said, 'Let's do it!'"

"I wanted to replicate the paintings exactly," says Lang, who chose three from the series: "Dawn," "Spring Morning," and "Stairway to the Sea." All three contain a strong horizon line and women, either alone or in a group, with their heads turned away from the viewer, staring out to sea. Lang, when thinking about the women's stories, decided that they must be waiting for men to return. When she asked Barnet, she was delighted to learn that he had the same notion when he created the works.

Working with Richmond Ballet's lighting and set designer Michael Stewart, Lang ensured that certain elements in the paintings — a widow's walk, trees and a staircase — emerged into three dimensions as set pieces for the ballet. Costume designer Tamara Cobus worked to match fabric color and texture with Barnet's colors.

And the dancing? It "evolves around where the women came from, what they're doing," Lang explains. Though the men play a key role in the piece, they have less stage time than the women. Lang used only two weeks of studio time last summer to complete the actual choreography, which "came out quite easy," she says.

The piece, opening this weekend in Richmond Ballet's Studio Series 3, is set to a requiem by Henryk G¢recki, which Lang stumbled upon and loved when she heard it. As music, dancers, costumes and set converge, Lang says, the audience will "see the paintings come to life onstage." S

The Richmond Ballet's Studio Series 3 presents "Women and the Sea: A Tribute to Will Barnet" in the Studio Theatre through May 6. The performance also includes George Balanchine's lighthearted "Who Cares?" set to the music of George Gershwin. Tickets are $15-$28. Call 262-8100 or visit


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