This Day in Jewish History |

1921: A Star Dancer Who Didn’t Want to Seem ‘Less Jewish’ Is Born

Nonetheless, she agreed to change her name to Pearl Lang – but of the works she choreographed for her own company, most had Jewish themes.

David Green
David B. Green
Madonna, who was once Pearl Lang's dance student, performing at the Super Bowl in 2012.
Madonna, who was once Pearl Lang's dance student, performing at the Super Bowl in 2012.Credit: AP
David Green
David B. Green

May 29, 1921, is the birthdate of Pearl Lang, one of the leading American dancers, choreographers and dance teachers – her students included a young Madonna – of the 20th century. Though Lang made it big-time on the New York stage, serving as principal dancer for years with the Martha Graham Company, the works she herself created were infused with the Yiddish culture of the immigrant environment in which she was raised.

She was born Pearl Lack in Chicago, the daughter of Jacob Lack, a tailor, and the former Freida Feder, both of them Jewish immigrants from the Russian empire. Jacob had grown up near Vilna (Lithuania), Freida in Pinsk (in contemporary Belarus).

Despite her family’s modest means, Pearl was raised in a family rich in culture, both Western and Jewish. Her father played piano, her mother wrote poetry, and they exposed their daughter to many of Chicago’s artistic institutions and performing organizations.

The rebellious spirit

Pearl was only three or four when her mother took her to Orchestra Hall to see the Duncan Dancers, the adopted daughters of dance legend Isadora Duncan. It was at that tender age, as she watched one of the young performers move across the stage, wrote Joan Timmis Strasbaugh in a biographical essay about Lang for the Jewish Women’s Archive, that Pearl “recognized the dancer’s rebellious and independent spirit as her own.”

By age 10, she had choreographed her first dance, about the flooding of the Nile River, for a class at school, and in high school she organized her own dance company. At the same time, she studied modern dance with Chicago’s Frances Allis.

In 1938, at age 17, she entered an undergraduate program for gifted teenagers at the University of Chicago, but left in 1941, having resolved to move to New York to study dance with Martha Graham. Within a year, she was dancing as a soloist with the Graham company.

Over the next decade her teacher choreographed nine dances specifically for Pearl (including the Woman in Red in “Diversion of Angels”), who by now had (reluctantly) changed her name to the less-Jewish sounding “Lang.”

Lang also was the first woman to take over certain roles that had been danced previously only by Graham, for example the lead in “Appalachian Spring.”

She established her own company, the Pearl Lang Dance Theater, in 1952, but over the next two decades continued to be a regular guest artist with the Graham company. Dance writer Rachel Strauss quoted a onetime Lang colleague, Peter London, who said that it was Lang’s own analytical approach to movement, by which “she would break the most difficult material into steps” that she would then practice over and over, that allowed her to continue appearing on stage until she was in her late 40s. But if her method was invested with hard work, she excelled in communicating emotion. In Lang’s own words, “Through ecstatic dance, one is lifted nearer to God.”

Of the 63 works Lang choreographed for her own company, more than half were based on Jewish themes. These included “Song of Deborah” (1955), for two women; “The Possessed” (1974), which was based on the Ansky play “The Dybbuk”; and “Shirah” (1960), based on a Hasidic tale of Nachman of Bratslav. Other companies that commissioned works from Lang included the Dutch National Ballet and Israel’s Batsheva company.

Pina Bausch studied with Lang, and disappointed her with her choreography, but she took pride in having taught Madonna, whom she first encountered at an audition in Michigan and was impressed with her ambition and attitude (“I said: That’s interesting, let’s take her”). When Madonna showed up in New York and was squatting with friends in an abandoned synagogue, Lang helped her get a job at the Russian Tea Room.

In 1964, Lang married the Canadian-born actor Joseph Wiseman. Though Wiseman gained immortality from his brief appearance onscreen as the sinister title character in “Dr. No,” the first James Bond film (1962), he was, like Lang, a Yiddishist, and the couple often gave literary readings in Yiddish.

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