Limon Dance Company – Psalm, Invention, Oneero, Etude

Written by:
Larry Campbell
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The Illustrated Dance Technique of Jose Limon

(1999), Daniel D. Lewis

What makes a work of art endure? In the case of dance, where the work is transmitted anew each time it is presented, often by dancers who were not the originators of the parts they perform, it must contain elements that transcend the specifics of the moment. In other words, at the heart of a dance there needs be an expression of feeling, emotion that speaks in a way that succeeding generations can appreciate.

A demonstration of choreographic timelessness can be found in the works of Jose Limon, whose artistic legacy is being preserved and renewed by the Limon Dance Company. A recent program by the company gave a sampling of the Limon esthetic and its contemporary embodiment.

As it approaches its sixtieth anniversary (in 2005), the Limon Dance Company increasingly appears to be a modern dance company that will endure. Its roots lie at the center of the American modern dance movement, which began with Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis. Duncan applied an American sense of freedom to movement; St. Denis appropriated foreign ethnic dance forms to give an exotic veneer to theatrical miniatures first presented in vaudeville. With her partner, Ted Shawn, St. Denis founded the Denishawn school and company. And from this spring of American dance creativity came Doris Humphrey.

Together with Charles Weidman, Humphrey headed the faculty of the Denishawn school in New York City. In 1928 she and Weidman set off on their own, founding a school and company that enabled her to develop her own theory of movement. To quote dance critic and historian Walter Terry, “she arrived at the theory that the movement of dance, with all its inherent dramatic properties, existed upon that arc which ranged from balance to unbalance, fall to recovery, that between the motionless of perfect balance and the destruction implicit in completely yielding to the pull of gravity lay the ‘arc between two deaths,’ the area of movement.”

About the same time, the next great American dance pioneer, Martha Graham, began to define her ideas of dance and her movement vocabulary. Her emphasis on the inner psychological impulse, which was at the source of her “contraction” movement, drew the body towards the ground. Humphrey, on the other hand, was more optimistic, as her upward motion counterbalanced the downward.

In 1930, a twenty-eight year old Mexican, Jose Limon, joined the Humphrey Weidman company in New York. A student of art and ballet, Limon found his mentor in Doris Humphrey.Under her tutelage, he began to choreograph solos for himself. After World War II Limon established his own company.Humphrey joined as an artistic director.

Limon was a compassionate individual, who felt deeply the sorrows and injustices visited upon people.His masterpiece, The Moor’s Pavane, created for his company in 1949 and still in the active repertory of many ballet companies today, is a distillation of the Othello story reduced to four characters: Othello, Iago, Desdemona and her servant. It is a model of economy in its swift delineation of the characters and the essential conflict.Its power derives from the clarity and brevity with which it is presented.The work is a tribute to the effect Doris Humphrey had on Limon. She was his constant editor, always ready to help him look for the essential in movement, and to reach for the most direct mode of expression.

The program presented by the Limon Dance Company began with one of Humphrey’s works for the company. Invention (1949) for a man and two women, weaves flowing combinations of the three dancers to a piano composition by Norman Lloyd. This is “pure” dance, where the movement is the object. Humphrey favored open arms in large gestures, which she contrasts with a coy, flirtatious solo for one woman and a more somber duet for the man and the other woman. The costumes, designed by Limon’s wife, Pauline Lawrence, reveal the interconnections of that period. One woman’s costume is closely fitted, with white arcs near the pelvis described on the solid lilac background—it is the sort of costume Martha Graham might have worn. The confident performances by Rapha�l Boumaila, Mary Ford, and Kimiye Corwin showed that a new generation of dancers can handle the material convincingly.

Etude, a three-minute solo male exercise in Limon’s movement vocabulary, created by company artistic director Carla Maxwell for the 2002 Winter Olympics dance education series, emphasized upward, searching gestures and flowing turns, where the arms seemed to become entangled in the vortex of the turn. Jonathan Riedel’s secure performance was colored by intense feeling.This was followed by a woman’s solo taken from Donald McKayle’s Heartbeats, which the company premiered in 1997. Roxane D’Orleans Juste used her hips, quick steps, and fluttering hands to fill the stage with saucy gaiety.

The heart of the program was Limon’s Psalm, which was created in 1967 and is now being shown in a new staging created in 2002 by Carla Maxwell. She was a relatively new member of the company when Limon created the work. Instead of using a story as the basis of his dance, he had taken the unusual (for him) step of using an abstract idea.He turned to the Jewish legend of thirty-six Just Men (lamed-vov) in whom the sorrows of the world reside.The dance, originally performed in silence because the company was unable to afford the royalties of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, centers around the figure of a man who is repelled from a group. By casting him off, the group is able to unite and confront its fears.

The work Limon created had not gone through a rigorous editing process with Doris Humphrey, as she had died in 1958. In recreating the dance, Maxwell returned to Limon’s own notes, shortening the dance by twenty minutes. She also commissioned a score from composer Jon Magnussen to complete this recreation of Psalm. The dance opens with the entrance of couples holding their hands behind their backs as they look about apprehensively. The Just Man, danced by Jonathan Riedel, emerges from the group and performs an anguished solo, twitching as though life were leaving his body.After the group repulses him, it reunites in a circle (a motif found in many Limon works). Gradually, the Just Man comes to the center of the circle, and the dance ends as he is borne aloft, almost like an offering.The effect is powerful and moving.Maxwell and the company members do honor to Limon by keeping his spirit alive with such effective performances

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