Pearl Lang, a soloist with Martha Graham’s company and a major exponent of her choreography, who also founded her own company and was a Juilliard faculty member from 1951 to 1969, died on February 24 in Manhattan at 87. The cause was a heart attack while she was recuperating from hip surgery.
Born as Pearl Lack in Chicago on May 29, 1921 (she changed her name for the stage), Lang created her first dance at 10 and studied in a special program for the gifted at the University of Chicago. She moved to New York in 1941 to study modern dance with Louis Horst and Martha Graham and soon joined Graham’s company, where she was a soloist from 1942 to 1952 and a guest artist from 1954 through the late 1970s. Lang originated roles in many of Graham’s works (including the Woman in Red in Diversion of Angels), and later was the first dancer entrusted with seven of Martha Graham’s own roles in such works as El Penitente, Appalachian Spring, Letter to the World, Clytemnestra, and Primitive Mysteries.
In 1952 Lang founded her own company, the Pearl Lang Dance Theater, for which she choreographed some 60 works, about half of which were rooted in Jewish themes, including The Possessed (1974), based on The Dybbuk, and Shirah (1960), based on a mystical Hasidic tale of rebirth. “I am a product of Yiddish education, which, as I look back, was a gift,” she told the Jewish Daily Forward in a 1986 interview. She was honored by the Workmen’s Circle, the Congress for Jewish Culture, and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture for her contributions to Jewish culture; among the many other awards she received were two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Martha Graham Award, and an honorary doctorate from Juilliard in 1995.
In 1970, Lang’s company moved into a former settlement house on East 59th Street and shared the space with Alvin Ailey and his company; together, Lang and Ailey co-directed the American Dance Center as a joint school. The Pearl Lang Dance Theater’s last season was in 2001. Though she forged her own style as a choreographer, she remained true to what dance critic Anna Kisselgoff described as “Graham’s use of movement as a metaphor for an emotional state.”
“There is no movement without emotional resonance in Pearl Lang’s choreography,” Kisselgoff wrote in a New York Times review of an October 2001 performance that was part of an 80th-birthday celebration for Ms. Lang. “The three plotless dances and a new dance-drama that the Pearl Lang Dance Theater presented at the Kaye Playhouse were exhilarating, all models of feeling expressively recreated on stage.”
Lang also choreographed for the Dutch National Ballet, the Boston Ballet, and the Batsheva Dance Company, as well as for film, opera, and television. She danced in the musicals One Touch of Venus (1943), Carousel (1945), Finian’s Rainbow (1947), and Allegro (1947), and a 1951 revival of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.
Joining Juilliard’s newly formed Dance Division as a faculty member in 1951, she taught in the College Division until 1957, and in the Pre-College Division until 1969. Lang also served on the faculties of Yale University, Connecticut College, the Neighborhood Playhouse, and taught technique and composition at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance up until shortly before her death. Her students over the years included Pina Bausch, Eliot Feld, Bruce Marks, and the singer Madonna. Janet Eilber, a Juilliard alumna who now directs the Martha Graham Dance Company, told The New York Times that Lang was an uncompromising artist who was remarkable for “the rigor of her standards and expectations,” adding that she was “a part of the fabric of everything we’ve done over the years.”
Besides her husband of more than 60 years, the actor Joseph Wiseman, Pearl Lang is survived by two nieces and a nephew.