Collaborating with Jessica Lang: Interview with molo

Dance Victoria Interview with Stephanie Forsythe + Todd MacAllen, Directors and Lead Designers of molo

Jessica Lang Dance, Lines Cubed with design by molo.
Jessica Lang Dance, Lines Cubed with design by molo. Photo: Takao Komaru

How did your design collaboration with Jessica Lang Dance begin?
molo’s work with Jessica Lang began in 2011 when she was commissioned to create a new work for the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Discovering molo products while doing research, she reached out to us and instigated what has become a successful and continued collaboration.

What did Jessica Lang bring to the meeting when you began your discussion for the design elements of Lines Cubed?
Jessica brought us the concept of animating Piet Mondrian’s paintings and enlivening his bold line and colour through her dancers. She believed that molo’s designs had the potential to complement the concept. With the addition of softblocks, the performance could move the paintings off the canvas and into an even more immersive, three-dimensional experience by turning Mondrian’s grids into a flexible framework.

Describe the set elements you designed for Lines Cubed that assist with bringing Piet Mondrian’s neoplasticism to life? What are they made of?
The softblocks used in Lines Cubed are made from 50% recycled, 50% new long fibre kraft paper, and have been dyed black with a bamboo charcoal ink. As the performance continues, several custom-dyed softblocks appear, mirroring Mondrian’s investigations of primary colours much as the dancers’ costuming does. Their internal honeycomb geometry allows them to bend, flex, expand and contract with a fluidity and grace deserving of the talented dancers interacting with them.

How do the dancers of Jessica Lang Dance interact with your designs in Lines Cubed? And for Within the Space I Hold?
For Lines Cubed, the dancers gradually manipulate and change the grid formed by the softblocks, creating a shifting landscape of line and colour. In the case of Within the Space I Hold, physical interaction with the dancers is even more pronounced, with a modified version of our cloud softlight being worn as an illuminated tutu.

I read that molo encourages “a way of working that leads to happy accidents and discoveries, inspiring design improvisation and original thinking.” Are there any elements of your designs for Lang’s works that were “happy accidents”? Designs that began as “improvisations” and evolved into permanent design elements for her works?
While experimenting with cloud softlight, we imagined and modelled them as illuminated tutus. When we presented the concept to Jessica, she loved the idea. These tutus were incorporated into Within the Space I Hold, and then reappeared in Escaping the Weight of Darkness, accompanied by cloud softlight pendants which gracefully soared above or fell to intimate distances with the dancers.

What do you like most about working with Lang?
Due to the nature of our products, we see our designs as building blocks for our clients or collaborators’ imagination. Once it is in their hands, they continue the design process. Working with Lang is a wonderful example of that, and she continues to see creative and beautiful uses for the designs. The casual grace of the rigging system devised for the cloud softlights in Escaping the Weight of Darkness was a very satisfying thing for us to experience and witness.

How different/similar is your work creating designs for Lang’s works compared to your other design projects?
Our work is still very much the same. It addresses issues of space making and creating designs which can adapt to multiple purposes — concepts which have always been at the heart of molo.

Do you travel to be on-location when Lang is creating a new work? Do you collaborate online, in person or a combination of both?
It has been an ongoing collaboration since our first encounter. When we have ideas for each other, we share them however we can, and they develop from there.

How does being an architect inform your process for designing set pieces for stage productions like Lang’s choreography?
Design thinking is a way of looking further ahead, and bringing a mass of intangible elements together in a comprehensive way. Architecture school made us realize that everything is a matter of scale — from a museum, to a person, to a teacup. In the same way, the performance itself takes on very different scales, from the delicate movements of a single dancer to the fluidity of the entire company. How one set piece sits, or how a dancer interacts with it, is an important part of the whole and is carefully considered.

Where are the sets constructed for Lang’s works?
Here in our Vancouver workshop. The pieces that we create for Lang are 99% air and only 1% material. Using an internal honeycomb structure, they flex, expand and contract with ease. When collapsed, they flatpack for shipping and travel to wherever Jessica and her dancers perform.