Limón Dance Company and guests
Joyce Theater, New York, NY
October 13, 17(evening) & 20, 2015

Jerry Hochman

The Limón Dance Company in Missa Brevis Photo Scott Groeller

The Limón Dance Company in Missa Brevis
Photo Scott Groeller

The number of modern dance companies that have lived on after the passing of their founders is miniscule. With the inspirational source gone, the surviving company walks a tightrope between preserving the founder’s legacy and enhancing or diluting it with new pieces.

The Limón Dance Company is one of those few that has survived and flourished. Founded in 1946 by Limón and its first Artistic Director, the legendary Doris Humphrey, the company was created to provide an outlet for Limón’s choreography and style of dance (an evolution from his association with the Humphrey-Weidman Company).

To commemorate its 70th anniversary season, Carla Maxwell, a former dancer with the company and its Artistic Director since 1978, has assembled a six-program, two-week event that doesn’t just present significant Limón dances, but also, by inviting the participation of internationally representative dance companies and dance schools (the latter under the rubric Next Generation) recognizes his wide-ranging and enduring influence.

What strikes instantly in the dances is not only the sense of gravity and weight, the ‘fall and recovery’ technique that Humphrey pioneered, and a focus on expression through dance that supplants the superficialities and bravura displays found in other theater dance styles, but also in many of the pieces, a surprising airiness and upward, spiritual or dramatic force. With feet firmly planted on the ground, Limón choreography also reaches for the stars.

The Moor’s Pavane is Limón’s acknowledged masterpiece, and has been performed by many companies around the world since its premiere in 1949. I saw it performed by American Ballet Theatre on the first ballet program I ever attended. It blew me away then, and still does.

Limón subtitled it “Variations on a Theme of Othello,” and does not identify the four characters by name as in Shakespeare’s play. That’s the only quarrel I have with it. That this dance is a brilliant distillation of Othello is not debatable – the characters are Shakespeare’s characters, and the story is Shakespeare’s story.

But the story is only part of what makes The Moor’s Pavane brilliant – the rest is Limón’s multi-faceted miracle of inspiration and composition. His choice of dance form and musical accompaniment fits the 16th-century story like a glove. It could not have been an accident that Limón selected a highly mannered Italian Renaissance dance with Spanish – and likely Moorish – influences as the piece’s structural framework, and Baroque music for its accompaniment (appropriately stately excerpts from compositions by English Baroque composer Henry Purcell).

More remarkable still is how Limón presents the story. Dissected, it is all his typical choreographic style seamlessly grafted onto a Renaissance frame – fierce and vigorous thrusts, uncomplicated movement that appears natural albeit within the courtly context, and a juxtaposition of circular and linear energy flows. The acting is a consequence of the choreography, and is relatively limited, but powerful. You can see the green-eyed monster as it transforms from an implanted idea to the perdition that catches Othello’s soul and the chaos that overwhelms him. It is both strikingly simple and extraordinarily complex, and as crystalline a merger of dance and drama as can be imagined.

Francisco Ruvalcaba, a member of the company since 1996, was a vigorous and compelling Moor (Othello). Nothing can replace my memory of Dennis Nahat in the role of His Friend (Iago), but Durell Comedy’s rendering was top notch – serpentine, vicious and unfeeling. The dancers portraying His Friend’s Wife (Emilia) and The Moor’s Wife (Desdemona) alternated between Kristen Foote and Roxane D’Orleans-Juste on Opening Night, and Kathryn Alter and Logan Kruger on the 17th. Each performed admirably, but Alter was a particularly moving Emilia.

Misa Brevis (dancers: Ruping Wang, Francisco Ruvalcaba, and Roxanne D'Orleans-Juste) Photo Scott Groeller

Misa Brevis
(dancers: Ruping Wang, Francisco Ruvalcaba, and Roxanne D’Orleans-Juste)
Photo Scott Groeller

Among the other dances in the three programs I saw, Mazurkas and Missa Brevis on the Festival’s Opening Night program, and Carlota and There is a Time (the last danced by American Repertory Ballet) on the 20th were particularly impressive.

Mazurkas, which auspiciously opened the two-week celebration, is eye-opening. Created following a trip to Poland in 1957 and as a tribute to the Polish people, Limón choreographed gentle solos, duets and a few group dances that capture the mazurka’s formulaic essence, but that are also are true to the dance’s folk origins. Using various Chopin piano compositions, these are dances for ordinary people; viewers whose only knowledge of the mazurka comes from classic ballet divertissements may not recognize it.

It’s difficult to hear many of these Chopin mazurkas and not think of Other Dances, which Jerome Robbins created for Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1976. That would be unfair of course – the dances and creative intent are completely different. But thinking of Robbins when watching Limón is not as farfetched as it might seem. I’ve often referenced the sense of humanity that Robbins imbued into his choreography;
Limón did the same. Indeed, the Limón style has been described as an
effort to inject a sense of humanity into modern dance.

Each dance in this suite of mazurkas is different– some happy, some sad, some abstract, some with an emotional component. I particularly appreciated Limón’s giving each dance a choreographic hook, which the dancers repeated sequentially during the piece’s finale. The company dancers on opening night danced it very well – particularly the riveting solos by Comedy and Ruvalcaba, the general vivacity and infectious joy of Kathryn Alter and Elise Drew Leon, and the concluding romantic duet performed by Leon and Aaron Selissen. At the performance on the 20th, the dancers of sjDANCEco didn’t fare as well. Although Robert Regala in the melancholy solo and Hsiang-Hsiu Lin and Dominic Duong in the romantic duet danced commendably, the dancers looked tired.

Missa Brevis premiered in 1958 and was also inspired by Limón’s visit to Poland. Intended as a tribute to the courage of the Polish people following the devastation of World War II, it’s choreographed to Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly’s Missa Brevis in Tempore Belli (A Short Mass in Time of War). It’s a monumental work that requires the participation not only of company dancers, but alumnae, guest dancers and students in Limón’s Professional Studies Program. Peppered with visions of desperate but hopeful people looking upward for whatever solace, redemption, or salvation their faith might provide, the piece, another Limón masterwork, matches Kodaly’s composition in its vivid spirituality. Limón’s ability to move masses of dancers in ways that never look repetitious, to reassemble them in structurally meaningful ways, and yet to focus on their anguished souls, is particularly remarkable. Alter, D’Orleans-Juste (the company’s most senior member, who joined in 1983, and also serves as its Associate Artistic Director), and Ruvalcaba, were particularly outstanding.

There is a Time, which premiered two years earlier, also has a religious-based framework and is intensely spiritual at its heart. But where the atmosphere of Missa Brevis is frenetic and epically doctrinaire, There is a Time is contemplative and intimately gracious, a Thanksgiving of a dance with the sensibility of Graham’s Appalachian Spring.

The piece transitions through a series of vignettes representative of the words of Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes (further immortalized by The Byrds in Turn, Turn, Turn). The basic visual theme is a circle of different sizes and component; dancers seamlessly framing each episode as the piece progresses. Staged superbly by former Limón dancer Sarah Stackhouse, each segment visually relates the scriptural words, and although some of it is more literal than I would have liked and it goes on too long (a consequence of being bound to the text), I found the choreography to be varied and interesting to watch, perfectly complemented by the Pulitzer Prize winning commissioned score by Norman Dello Joio.

And in dancers from American Repertory Ballet, the piece found ideal interpreters. I don’t know if the ARB dancers applied the Limón style the way the Limón dancers would have, but the cleaner lines, softer and lighter balletic sense, and impeccable delivery were welcome. The highlights were Mattia Pallozzi’s movingly introspective performance in the ‘Born and Die’ segment; Karen Leslie Moscato’s tormented sufferer (‘War’), an effervescent Lily Saito (‘Laugh’), Saito and Michael Landez (‘Embrace’), and the commanding, compassionate portrayals by Samantha Gullace (‘Silence and Speech’, ‘Mourn’, and ‘Peace’).

Brenna Monroe-Cook as Empress Carlota in Carlota Photo Beatriz Schiller

Brenna Monroe-Cook as Empress Carlota in Carlota
Photo Beatriz Schiller

Limón included periods of silence in many of his dances but The Unsung, which opened program B, and Carlota, the middle piece in Program C, are both danced in complete silence – both an enhancement and a detriment. The absence of a score gives more freedom to the choreographer and allows a viewer to focus on the choreography and performances without external influences, but the absence of music in these pieces left a void. Be that as it may, both pieces are intensely dramatic and powerful.

The Unsung is described as “a paean to the heroic defenders of the patrimony” and consists of individual sequential solos representative of eight Native American tribal leaders. Although I found some of the visual representation (e.g., the dancers’ hands forming feathered headdresses) simplistic, and some choreography unnecessarily repetitious (pounding of feet into the ground as in a stereotypic ‘war dance’, and bending one leg back and striking the top of that foot against the floor), the dances for the chiefs are sufficiently distinctive to maintain interest. It’s a powerful and solemn tribute, and was superbly performed by the eleven-man cast (particularly impressive were Ross Katen, Charles Andersen, and
Gregory Dean – the latter two from the Royal Danish Ballet).

Carlota, which premiered in 1972, is a fascinating piece that retells an obscure event in Mexican history (but obviously not obscure to Limón, who was born in Mexico): the failed ‘French Intervention’ of 1862. But the dance’s conceit is that it tells its story through the prism of Empress Carlota, the widow of Emperor Maximilian (brother of Austrian Emperor Franz-Joseph, and a puppet of French Emperor Napoleon III), who was executed by a firing squad on order of Mexican President Benito Juarez, after which Carlota, a Belgian Princess who was in Europe rallying support for her husband at the time of his death, went insane.

Staged by Maxwell, for whom Limón created the piece, Carlota begins with repeated screams in the darkness, and then as the stage is gradually lit, the former empress appears disheveled, miserable and alone in a chair (a pseudo-throne) wrapped Graham-like in a garment that covers everything but her face,. She imagines Maximilian and their life as Mexican/European royalty, complete with ‘ladies in waiting’. But the action and atmosphere soon change as Juarez and his guerillas assume control, Carlota ‘sees’ her husband’s death, loses control, and in her last appearance, is returned to isolation and despair.

While the piece is somewhat obvious, with the events telegraphed even to those unfamiliar with them, the ‘events’ weren’t the point of the piece: Carlota’s mind was. And seen through Carlota’s eyes, the dance was both appropriately one-dimensional and riveting. As the crazed Carlota, Brenna Monroe-Cook was superb, not just because she was the central character in the piece, but because she commanded the stage. It’s a cliché to say that you could feel her pain, but you could. Mark Willis was a forceful, merciless Juarez, and Katen played Maximilian as both compassionate and clueless, which was apparently what he was.

The final piece on the 17th, The Winged, was the only piece that left me cold. Although the dance, at least in theory, is ‘about’ flying and soaring, I could not stop seeing dancers acting like birds – which I suppose is a tribute to the skill of the large cast. But to me the piece was no more than a slice of life in a bird sanctuary.

Limón’s choreography is no longer innovative or unusual, and with the passage of time some of his pieces, like The Winged and The Unsung, now appear dated. But most, whether imagined in temporal context or seen as timeless masterpieces, are of immense value. Seeing all these Limón dances during the course of one event is a marvelous opportunity to relive an era in modern dance history, and to celebrate the legacy of José Limón.