Doylestown’s Jessica Lang knew at a very young age exactly what she wanted to do with her life.
“Ask her and you’d always get the same thing,” her mother, Peggy Lang, said recently.
“‘An astronaut! An astronaut! An astronaut!’ That’s all I ever heard from her.”
Jessica did go on to fly, but as a dancer, first at the Juilliard School, then as a member of Twyla Tharp's company THARP!
For nearly 18 years, she has worked as a choreographer, six of them with her own company, Jessica Lang Dance (JLD), a New York troupe that has quickly gained an international reputation.
Lang, recipient of a 2014 Bessie Award, will have a homecoming this week when she brings her company for a five-night stand Wednesday through Sunday at the Prince Theater in Center City. The show is part of this season’s NextMove Dance offerings.
The program will feature the Philadelphia premiere of “Her Road,” the final part of a trilogy inspired by painter Georgia O’Keeffe, said NextMove Dance artistic director Randy Swartz.
“We are honored to have an artist of Jessica’s stature,” Swartz said. “She is one of the very, very few women choreographers who has an international reputation. In fact, she’s one of a very small cadre of people, men or women, who has achieved this level of success.”
Also included is JLD’s signature work “The Calling,” featuring a guest solo performance by Kanji Segawa, a member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater -- and Lang’s husband.
“It’s always been very popular in Philadelphia,” said Lang, who lives with Segawa in Long Island City in Queens.
Lang, 42, shies away from personal topics but speaks eloquently and passionately about what inspires her work.
“Everything. It comes from every source,” she said in a phone interview.
“Nothing is off limits in what I create because it is about the world around me, and everything contributes to it.”
That includes Shakespeare -- the show will include “Sweet Silent Thought,” in which two dancers act out the emotions evoked by Shakespeare’s sonnets.
“And everything contributes to the work itself, including lighting, costume design, stage design,” Lang added.
“We will close with ‘Thousand Yard Stare,’ a piece set to Beethoven about veterans of war,” said Lang, who conducted interviews with returning vets. Drawings made by the servicemen and women are incorporated as part of the costume design.
For Lang, a dance is a total work, an entire world, said American Ballet Theater artistic director Kevin McKenzie, who worked with Lang when she launched her career as a choreographer. “Her remarkable command of language, not just of dance but of the atmosphere and the composition, was apparent early on.”
“She has a total sense of what can be created through the proscenium through lighting and design and texture,” he said.
Lang was first exposed to the art while tagging along to her sister Stephanie’s dance lessons. “Her father [Jim] and I wanted them both to do a lot of things," her mother said. "So we took them horse riding, since we’re from Bucks County and there’s a lot of it here. But they also did ice skating and swimming.”
Stephanie Lang went on to dance in Broadway shows, including Cats, and now teaches movement at NYU. “That both of them would take it up as careers? I never thought it could happen,” said Peggy Lang.
Jessica received formal training in ballet at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet in Narberth. By the time she was in high school, her mother was driving her to New York once a week to study with Joe Lanteri at Steps on Broadway.
“I met her when I did a workshop in Philly. I offer them around the country. She was in her early teens and it was clear she was well-trained,” said Lanteri, who specializes in jazz.
“But beyond that, she had this purity and clarity. And this was not common among the people you meet in these kinds of workshops.”
Lanteri said he was flabbergasted by the sacrifices Jessica’s mother made to get both her daughters to their different dancing classes through their teens. “Dance moms get so maligned nowadays, but her mother was really supportive,” he said.
Lanteri encouraged Jessica to audition for Juilliard, where he also taught.
Despite landing a coveted position straight out of school, she soon came to realize that the life of a dancer didn't really appeal to her. “I was dancing with Twyla Tharp, one of the greatest choreographers in the world. It was a great job and I was being paid for doing something I loved,” she said.
“But about six months into that job, I realized it didn’t have the creative [energy] I wanted. I didn’t like being just a performer.”
Lang struck out on her own at 25 and spent a dozen years working with a remarkable series of dance companies as a guest choreographer.
It’s the life of a journeyman who’s always on the road. “You keep going from one company to another. It’s exhausting. And you’re always a guest in someone else’s home,” she said. “Having my own company has been this great creative outlet.”
Lang said that if anything unites her work, it’s a commitment to show that dance doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
“A work, a dance, is always connected to something else in the world, to an idea, to an event like war, and to people.”
Jessica Lang Dance
Wednesday through April 9 at the Prince Theater, 1412 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $20-$60; $10 student rush.
Information: 215-636-9000, Ext. 109, or nextmovedance.org.