Limón Dance Company
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

June 1, 2019
The Weather in the Room, The Moor’s Pavane, Radical Beasts in the Forest of Possibilities (world premiere), Psalm (Excerpt)

Jerry Hochman

Limón Dance Company returned to the Joyce Theater for a week run with a mixed program that’s fairly typical for a company still tied to its legacy, but attempting to move beyond it: One classic Limón dance, an excerpt from another that I’d not previously seen, the New York premiere of a dance by its current Artistic Director, Colin Connor, and a world premiere by Francesca Harper. Frequently also typical, the pieces by company co-founder José Limón, Psalm and The Moor’s Pavane, outclassed the rest of the program.

I’ll first address the evening’s “new” dances, and will return to the Limón classics thereafter.

The evening opened with The Weather in the Room, a piece that Connor created in 2015 for the Canadian Contemporary Dance Theater, and which premiered in Toronto. This engagement was its New York premiere.

A dance that explores a deteriorated but comfortable relationship – a not uncommon feature of lengthy relationships – is not exactly cutting edge, but I’ll grant that Connor’s concept of its presentation – the couple in situ surrounded by other dancers who embody the atmosphere that reflects, or compels, the couples’ actions – is sufficiently unusual to make another examination of a mature relationship worth the effort. However, as presented, and notwithstanding some relatively clever staging, The Weather in the Room lacks the substance that make a dance more than something quickly forgettable.

Miki Orihara and Stephen Pier
in Colin Connor’s
“The Weather in the Room”
Photo by Christopher Jones

Much has been made of Connor’s effort here to create an “inter-generational” dance, but here inter-generational doesn’t mean that senior dancers dance roles usually reserved for more youthful dancers. Here, inter-generational just means that older dancers play older people – like character dancers in a ballet who still move with a certain style, but whose dance-like movement is at best limited. The couple is played by guest artists (and real-life couple) Miki Orihara and Stephen Pier, who decidedly provide a level of verisimilitude in their portrayal of a mature couple usually absent from younger dancers costumed and acting like seniors. And certainly Orihara, a former principal with the Martha Graham Company who still moves and emotes expressively and with a burning internal passion, and Pier, a former member of the Royal Danish Ballet, the Hamburg Ballet, and the Limón Company who has an imposing stage presence, are excellent choices as the couple. That’s not the issue – nor is the choreography for the six company dancers who collectively comprise “The Weather.” Rather, the concept, which sounds interesting in the abstract, does it in.

The dance has no program note beyond reference to the “powerful mature guest artists” and an interesting unattributed quote: “For every couple, the quotidian is hardly ordinary.” [The program note omits the close quote, which I assume is a typographical error rather than a meaningful comment.] In a nutshell, that is indeed what The Weather in the Room is about: that the ordinary and mundane day to day actions are not ordinary, and are particular to the couple portrayed. Well, sure, every couple is different, and the energies that surround one couple may be peculiar to that couple. But the nuts and bolts of a couple’s relationship lack any semblance of drama when what’s presented is their ordinary and mundane actions, however they may be impacted by the atmosphere around them: ignoring each other, taking each other for granted, picking fights over festering irritations, making up, and in the end, still maintaining what usually passes as a loving relationship.

The couple is initially featured in a set-off area downstage left (apparently some sort of parlor or corner of their bedroom, though that’s not clear), who appear to have just returned home after an evening “out.” Orihara, stunningly costumed in a red dress, and Pier, wearing a formal-looking dark suit, studiously ignore each other as they settle in. Their distance is, apparently, a product of familiarity: there’s still some semblance of mutual feeling, but it’s smothered by the mundane. To music by Sarah Sugarman (from a variety of unspecified compositions) that mirrors the atmosphere on stage, the couple and the personified “weather in the room” dancers act and dance and cook the ingredients for what in the end is still a cheesy omelet regardless of how it’s dressed up.

Frances Samson and Terrence Diable
in Colin Connor’s
“The Weather in the Room”
Photo by Christopher Jones

The collective Weather is somewhat of a Greek chorus, especially when they form a physical perimeter within which the couple exists. Their primary function, however, is to represent energy forces in the atmosphere that surrounds the couple. Befitting forces that don’t have a corporeal existence, these dancers are costumed in billowy, off-white outfits (all costumes designed by Krista Dowson) that accentuate the flow of Connor’s choreography. And I’ll admit that the dance intriguingly raises the question whether these forces reflect the couple’s actions, or compel them, but to the extent its raised, that issue isn’t really pursued.

Much of the dance is nicely staged. Rather than being confined to their initial corner of the stage, the mature couple and the carpet on which they stand move from point to point around the stage (moved as a fluid part of the choreography by the energy forces), so the dance hardly looks as static as the above description might sound. Similarly, although there always appears to be an emotional distance between them, the couples’ interactions are not limited to ignoring each other’s presence: they fume, they argue, they make up. And the choreography for the six Weather dancers (Terence D.M. Diable, Mariah Gravelin, Gregory Hamilton, Eric Parra, Frances Samson, and Lauren Twomley, with Twomley and Parra particular standouts) is as varied as the energy wind’s direction and speed – and in its movement character appears closest to Limón’s style (considering that Connor spent eight years as a soloist with the Limón Company, that’s not surprising). But in the end, The Weather in the Room is a depiction, unusual as that depiction may be, of the ordinary and mundane that doesn’t rise above that. And you don’t really need a chorus of weathermen and weatherwomen to know which way the wind blows – or that there’s a wind at all.

(l-r) Jacqueline Bulnes, Mark Willis,
and David Glista in Francesca Harper’s
“Radical Beasts in the Forest of Possibilities”
Photo by Christopher Jones

Radical Beasts in the Forest of Possibilities, choreographed by Francesca Harper to music composed (and performed live) by Nona Hendryx, is yet more of a puzzlement. The dance, absent program notes, appears to be a visualization of the impact of the digital age on humanity and human relationships. That sort of cosmic theme, however, is reduced to a jumble of movement expressive of digital stress and angst: shaking hands, quaking bodies, lunging movement. It’s not pretty, and it’s not intended to be: it’s a cruel world in which humans struggle to maintain some semblance of humanity. The eight Limón dancers do extraordinary work here, but the dance’s dark images speak of a struggle that they will ultimately lose, despite efforts to escape the digital carnage.

It remained to José Limón to make the evening meaningful.

The Limón Company was founded in 1946 by Limón and its first Artistic Director, Doris Humphrey, to provide an outlet for Limón’s choreographic style and genius, honed through his prior association with the legendary Humphrey-Weidman Company, and the sense of noble humanity that he imbued in his characters, all tempered by his being a Mexican emigrant in a what even then was a richly diverse national community. As I’ve previously observed, what strikes instantly in his 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 Limon Company in Jose Limon’s “Psalm”
Photo by Douglas Cody

In 1967, Limón created Psalm. As he did in so many of his other dances, including The Unsung, a tribute to Native Americans which I saw during the company’s 2015 Joyce Theater season (and of course in The Moor’s Pavane), Limón’s focus in Psalm isn’t so much on the tradition, but on its meaning. The story is derived from the ancient Jewish Talmudic story that all the sorrows of the world are borne by 36 “Just Men.” The dance distills this to one man. While it sounds like a sort of Hebraic version of Atlas bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, this visualization isn’t heroic in the sense of physical strength – its heroism is spiritual. And this man is not specially anointed – he may be chosen, but the only aspect of the character that’s exceptional is the burden he carries.

As presented in this program, Psalm is not the complete Limón original. In 2002, then Artistic Director Carla Maxwell reconfigured it, reducing its length and commissioning a new score (by Jon Magnussen). My understanding is that this performance, to honor Maxwell, may not have been the complete Maxwell reduction (the program references it as an “excerpt”). Regardless, based on what was presented, Psalm remains an emotionally vivid depiction of silent suffering and heroism.

Not surprisingly, there’s a lot about Psalm (at least this incarnation of it) that’s remindful of Jerome Robbins’s Dybbuk. Not of course in the story, or the style, but in the sense of community and ritual and responsibility that permeates it. Even in reduced form, its power is almost … biblical. David Glista is the “Just Man” who emerges from the line of worshippers to shoulder an unbearable burden without knowing that he’s one of the Just Men [Part of the story is that these Just Men are anonymous;  concealed within the Jewish population so they could not be identified and subjugated. Neither the Just Men nor their associates know they’re Just Men.] Glista’s portrayal of this man’s inexplicable torment and his endurance as a sort of gift to his people is almost too much to bear.

The Original Cast
(left, Jose Limon) in
“The Moor’s Pavane”
Photo by Barrat

As fine a work as Psalm is, however, it cannot eclipse Limón’s indisputable masterpiece. I was lucky enough to have seen The Moor’s Pavane on the first live program of dance I ever saw (in January, 1972, performed by American Ballet Theatre) and it remains every bit as powerful to me now as it did then.

That this dance is a brilliant distillation of Othello is not debatable – even though the characters from Othello are not identified by name, they’re 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).

(front) Jesse Obremski,
and (l-r) Savannah Spratt,
Mark Willis, and Jacqueline Bulnes
in Jose Limon’s “The Moor’s Pavane”
Photo by Hayim Heron

More remarkable still is how Limón presents the story. Dissected, it’s a creative fusion: Limón’s 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 equally 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.

While this program’s cast seemed less powerful than others I recall seeing, that’s relative – and perhaps a consequence of the persistence of memory. Mark Willis’s Moor had a rougher, less noble demeanor than I recall seeing in prior portrayals, but it was not inappropriate, and indeed made the Moor’s actions somewhat less out of character. As “His Friend” (Iago), Jesse Obremski was a calculating serpent, and Savannah Spratt, “The Moor’s Wife” (Desdemona), was appropriately innocent and bewildered by events that made no sense. But to me, Jacqueline Bulnes’s portrayal of “His Friend’s Wife” (Emilia) was particularly riveting: her sense of betrayal and horror unmistakably expressed.

A challenge faced by all dance companies that heavily rely on masterworks of their founding choreographer is sustainability: how to maintain the legacy without being imprisoned by it. But that’s an unfortunate way to view the issue. To me, whether the company is Limón, or Martha Graham, New York City Ballet, or, now, Paul Taylor, the legacy is a continuing bequest rather than a barrier to future growth. To my eye, the “new dances” on this Limón program missed the mark, making the legacy pieces look even better by comparison. Eventually, new choreography will come along to satisfactorily plug scheduling gaps. In the meantime, it’s nice to have the Limón canon to rely on.