This fall marks the premiere of a new ballet, ZigZag by choreographer Jessica Lang. Planned for 2020, American Ballet Theatre’s celebratory 80th anniversary, it was postponed until this October. The music is drawn from the seven-decade career of the legendary singer Tony Bennett, known for signature songs such as “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “The Best is Yet to Come,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” as well as collaborations with new generations of performers, including John Legend, K.D. Lang, and Lady Gaga. For ZigZag, ABT has drawn together some of the leading talent from the worlds of theater, dance, and fashion with costumes by Wes Gordon, creative director of the Carolina Herrera fashion house, scenery by Derek McLane, and lighting by Nicole Pearce. Mario R. Mercado spoke with Jessica Lang and Derek McLane about this special collaboration.
Q: What was the impetus for ZigZag?
Jessica Lang: Tony Bennett and American popular song. He has an unrivaled knowledge of it and an interpretative authority encompassing popular standards, musicals, and jazz. I wanted his music to be at the center. Creating a dance to his music is something Tony and I have discussed for five years.
Q: How many dancers does it involve?
Lang: Fourteen. It is a full ensemble piece that breaks apart into various configurations. The piece highlights individual dancers to reflect the energy, meaning, and mood of each song. There are those uniquely associated with Bennett such as “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” to the Rodgers-Hart ballad “Blue Moon.” ZigZag also includes a duet with Lady Gaga: the Cole Porter classic “It’s De-Lovely,” from their newly released album Love For Sale.
Q: Bennett is also a gifted painter and draftsman. Did his artwork inspire your stage design?
Derek McLane: He is well known for his paintings, but I was drawn to his black-and-white line drawings. There is a terrific depiction of the New York City skyline, a panorama of landmarks. I also made use of portraits of musicians in his band. My set design is simple, black-and-white, intended to look airy and fresh, Broadway and elegant. There is another aspect, not related to Bennett, per se: a zigzag, based on the title of the piece and Bennett’s comment, “when they zig, I zag.” Abstract and playful, the motif appears on a drop.
Q: In terms of age, more than a few generations separate some dancers from Bennett. Are there qualities in the music or his music-making to which ballet dancers of today respond?
Lang: There is a purity to his music-making, and he communicates something irresistible. The simple answer: his music is fun and joyful. The quality of Bennett’s sound penetrates the ballet studio and seems to produce a relaxed mood. Without being aware, dancers begin to tap their feet and sway.
Q: How did you choose the music for ZigZag, given Bennett’s seven-decade career?
Lang: He has such an enormous catalogue of recordings—it took me a year to choose the 11 selections. And given the experiences we have lived and shared throughout the past year and a half, I made changes. In early August, I heard Tony Bennett perform with Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall. That concert represented one of the first live performances in a New York theater since the pandemic. Songs took on new meanings. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. I decided to add the duet.
Q: You have created sets for a wide range of Broadway productions, from How to Succeed in Business and The Heiress, to Moulin Rouge. What were the challenges in designing ZigZag?
McLane: First, trying to get the tone right, but that is the challenge of every piece, and that is my job. It is a non-intellectual process. As many times as I have done this, it remains a question of trial and error. I keep doodling or drawing until something clicks. Second, I start with the story if there is one. The aim is to tell the story in a way that is meaningful for the audience. In this case, there isn’t one story, but a bunch of stories, united by Tony Bennett, Jessica Lang’s choreography, and the dancers.
Q: Were there particular songs to which you responded?
McLane: It is hard to choose, but “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “What the World Needs Now,” which is joyful, and “Smile,” which is extraordinarily expressive. They all have enduring appeal and given these times, newfound significance.
Q: What about the color palette?
McLane: It is black-and-white consistent with an elegant mood, but also intended as a background against which the costumes by Wes Gordon can pop. The costume colors, taxi-cab yellow, fuchsia, royal blue, are vibrant. There are also dresses with black-and-white polka dots, a distinctive feature of Carolina Herrera design, which the set complements.
Q: What is your hope for ZigZag, a ballet that marks such a significant moment in New York’s cultural life, the return to live performance?
Lang: The ballet was originally planned for ABT’s 80th anniversary in 2020. As with so much in the arts, in life, it may take on greater dimension. The piece is celebratory, but also part of a healing process as well as a marker for this Company, which has been very special for me. ZigZag offers a wonderful way to return to the theater for dancers and audiences alike because of the joy, power, and quality of Bennett’s singing.
McLane: It is fun and special to be a part of this project. Ballet is such a big part of why we all live in New York, and we have all been deprived of it. And to celebrate Tony Bennett, a quintessential New Yorker, is an honor.
Mario R. Mercado writes on dance, music, theater, and art.