Limón Dance Company
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

April 20, 2022
Program A: Air for the G String, Psalm, Chaconne, Only One Will Rise (world premiere)

Jerry Hochman

Limón Dance Company returned to The Joyce Theater last week with two programs. I was able to see the first of them.

The company’s season, a one-year delayed celebration of its 75th Anniversary, was intended to focus on the “Limón Legacy,” defined as José Limón’s “impact on the modern dance world through iconic works, newly uncovered treasures, and exciting new voices….” Based on Program A and what I read of Program B, Artistic Director Dante Puleio, in his first year, in large part accomplished that.

Program A consisted of Air for the G String, a piece choreographed by Doris Humphrey in 1928 (Humphrey’s choreography was a major influence on Limón); Psalm, which Limón created in 1967; Chaconne, a solo created and performed by Limón in 1942; and a new piece reportedly inspired by him, Only One Will Rise, choreographed by Olivier Tarpago, an emigrant from Burkina Faso in West Africa. Overall, two of the four pieces, Psalm and Chaconne, are stunning examples of Limon’s choreography; Air for the G String, while always welcome, was somewhat superfluous, and Only One Will Rise shows choreographic promise, but, at least in the context of the Limón pieces, didn’t rise to the Limón level.

I’ll discuss the pieces presented in the above order.

To my knowledge, the company last presented Psalm during its 2019 Joyce season, and I reviewed it thereafter. What was presented then, however, was in excerpted form; this performance was the complete piece.

Psalm is a masterpiece, with compelling subject matter and choreography, and was executed by the Limón dancers (and several from Limón2) like it was a world premiere rather than reverentially – which, in a way, it was. The program describes it as a major restaging of Limón’s original piece (as opposed to the 2002 revision by then Artistic Director Carla Maxwell), and with its original score by Eugene Lester, as opposed to the score by Jon Magnussen that accompanied the Maxwell restaging.

For this program, the company included helpful pre-recorded introductory words for each piece, spoken by Dion Mucciacito. The introduction to Psalm indicated that Limón based his ballet on Jewish folklore, and that it was created after Limón learned that he was had cancer. Whether there’s a connection between the two is not clear – obviously, any such diagnosis would be impactful, but Limón continued to create until his death of prostate cancer five years later.

Psalm places its characters not in today’s world (or Limón’s), but the world as it was “before” – “before” being a fluid concept. Consequently, there’s a lot about Psalm that’s remindful of Jerome Robbins’s Dybbuk. But Limón’s focus in Psalm isn’t on telling a religious story by mirroring it in a superseding story and re-creating tradition within the world of the people who are then contemporaries, as in the Robbins ballet, but on a story’s meaning and significance in that real but somewhat mystical world that came “before,” particularly in the sense of community and ritual and responsibility that permeates it. Even with “universal” costumes (by Márion Talán de la Rosa) that neither date it nor attribute to it a connection to any particular religion, Psalm’s power is almost … biblical.

Limón Dance Company in José Limón’s “Psalm”
Photo by Steven Pisano

The folklore referred to in the introductory comments is derived from an ancient Jewish story that all the sorrows of the world are borne by 36 “Just Men.” That’s not exactly accurate, either for the Limón piece or as a summary of the tale.

The exact nature of the story isn’t clear, and it varies as one century follows another, but the thrust appears more to be that the world is continually, or maybe generationally, populated by 36 (or more, or less) “Just Men” (more correctly, Righteous Men) who bear the burdens of the world, or on who’s shoulders – and righteousness – humanity’s existence rests, rather than 36 men for all time. While it sounds like a sort of Hebraic version of Atlas bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, that’s not correct: to the extent there’s heroism in the story, it’s spiritual, and it’s that spiritual quality that is visualized in Limon’s dance.

Additionally, part of the legend is that these Just Men are anonymous; concealed within the Jewish population so they cannot be identified and subjugated – and neither the Just Men nor their associates nor anyone else know they’re Just Men. In a sense, the story is parabolic: the implicit moral being that everyone must act consistent with being a just, righteous man or run the risk of unknowingly dooming the human race.

So rather than simply say that the story is based on Jewish folklore, it would be more accurate to say that the dance is derived from the story as filtered through a 1959 French novel (published in English in 1960) by Andre Schwarz-Bart, called, in English, “The Last of the Just,” in which the novelist reduces the number of Just Men, over centuries, from 36 to 1, and that this “last of the just” died in the Holocaust. Limón didn’t change that – on the contrary, he specifically referenced it: the program note (identified as a “Director’s Note”) quotes a passage from “The Last of the Just” in which the names of Nazi concentration camps are intertwined with the words of a common prayer: “Praised be The Lord.’ [“And praised Auschwitz be Maidanek The Lord  Treblinka…”]

Focusing on a “last” Just Man allows Limón’s piece to be more dramatic than it might otherwise have been, and to open the folklore such that, in a sense, it becomes a story of individual human significance beyond the parameters of the original (whatever that “original” legend might be). How will this last just man (perhaps Limón himself) be judged, and what need he do to atone for whatever sins he committed?

Nicholas Ruscica is the “Just Man,” identified as the “Burden Bearer,” who emerges from the line of worshippers to shoulder an unbearable burden without knowing that he’s one of the Just Men. The “Expiatory Figures” (those who assist this “last just man” to atone for his sins) – Francis Lorraine Samson, Savannah Spratt, and Lauren Twomley (who also acted as “staging assistant” for the piece as a whole), and the “Psalmists” (the remainder of the company plus 3 dancers from Limón2) danced with appropriate spiritual and humanistic intensity, seemingly sharing the burden of the bearer himself while he bore the burdens of the world.

All this having been said, and as fine as Psalm in its original form still is, I must admit that between the two I prefer the more powerful Maxwell adaptation and the Magnussen score. But I suspect I’m an outlier on that.

Chaconne is a solo that Limón created, and performed himself, in 1942.

The dance form Chaconne originated in Mexico (according to the program note, during the Spanish occupation), and Limón was a Mexican emigrant, his family having moved to Los Angeles in 1915, when he was seven. Using the Chaconne as a framework for his solo is akin to his use of the Pavane as a framework for his most famous piece, The Moor’s Pavane. It places the dance in a context (Mexico /  Italy), but doesn’t limit the choreographic possibilities within that framework.

The J.S. Bach piece that Limón selected for this solo (Chaconne from Partita #2 in D Minor for Unaccompanied Violin) is unlike most of the more familiar Baroque Bach compositions; it’s an emotion-laden composition, and Limón’s choreography focuses on that aspect of it. Although highly controlled, it’s also highly expressive.

Since its premiere, the solo has been performed by a variety of men and women, including Baryshnikov. For this engagement, Puleio selected an assortment of guest artists. The dancer I saw was Donovan Reed, a member of A.I.M (Kyle Abraham’s company). I can’t tell you exactly what emotions Reed was trying to convey, but his performance was both memorable and exciting to watch. One could feel the emotion in his character, even without knowing what the emotions were supposed to represent: his – and the choreography’s – power was that strong.

Limon Dance Company
in Doris Humphrey’s “Air for the G String”
Photo by Christopher Jones

The evening opened with members of the company performing Doris Humphrey’s Air for the G String, one of her more noteworthy dances. The reason for including it was to show the connection between Limón and Humphrey, and the source of the “fall and recovery” choreographic technique that he adopted. [Limón danced with the Humphrey-Weidman company, and after Limón created his own company, Humphrey was its first Artistic Director.] Based on Humphrey’s technique, Limón’s adds dynamically released weight, fluidity based on breathing, and expressiveness into each movement.

Created in 1928 to Bach’s Suite No. 3 in G Major, the dance features five women attired in loose-fitting and feather-lite robes, ceremonial-looking rather than utilitarian, solemnly and purposefully moving around the stage, solo or in various combinations, as if to recognize Nature’s sanctity and serenity. The five dancers (Spratt, Twomey, Mariah Gravelin, Deepa Liegel, and Jessica Sgambelluri) did a fine job with it. While it’s limited in scope, it’s pleasant enough to watch and fits neatly with the rest of the Limón pieces on the program. And the dance also suggests another contributor to that style – Isadora Duncan.

The world premiere piece that concluded Program A, Only One Will Rise, is a promising piece of work, but suffered from being on the same program as Psalm, the dance that purportedly stylistically, and perhaps emotionally, inspired it (and which the dance’s title reflects).

Tarpaga is a man who wears many hats. He formed the drum-based ensemble Dafra Drum (named after the sacred Dafra River in the nation of his birth, Burkina Faso), the Dafra Kura Band (20% drum-based, focusing on other instruments common in West African culture); he’s the Artistic Director of Nomad Express International MultiArts Festival in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; and he’s the Director of the African music ensemble for Princeton University’s Department of Music; among an ever-increasing list of music and dance accomplishments. Searching multiple online sites, it appears that Tarpaga is indefatigable in his promotion of West African music, with organizations climbing over themselves to give him commissions amid critical raves about his music and his dance creations – and the fact that he’s here at all.

That’s not to say that any of this attention is unwarranted; he couldn’t have received the acclaim he’s received without the talent to support it, and it appears that this talent is abundant.

(l-r) Savannah Spratt, M.J. Edwards, and B. Woods
in Olivier Tarpaga’s “Only One Will Rise”
Photo by Christopher Grant

Mucciacito’s introductory comments attempt to draw a connection between Limon’s immigrant experience and Tarpaga’s, and a similarity between Limón’s style and Tarpaga’s. That may not have been the wisest thing to do: I don’t know if their experiences are comparable (apparently Tarpaga has returned to Burkina Faso frequently, and has been acclaimed there as well), but even if they are, it sets Tarpaga’s piece here up for comparison, and that’s unfortunate.

There’s nothing I can point to that’s wrong with Only One Will Rise, but nothing that endeared me to it either. Compared to the Limón pieces, it’s too loud and too busy, and somewhat heavy-looking – and the music (which Tarpago created, together with Tim Motzer, and which was played live by a trio of musicians), though undoubtedly West African (from a description I read, it sounds akin to the music of the Dafra Kura Band), made it look and feel even heavier than it appeared. And its subject matter has been mined before in multiple dances to better effect. But if I have an opportunity to see it again on its own or in a different program, I might feel differently. So I’ll withhold judgment for now. Suffice it to say that the Limon dancers executed Tarpaga’s choreography with the emotion and skill that the piece required, and the piece is filled with far more animated movement variety than one can keep track of.

I regret that I was unable to see Program B, which on paper appeared to be quite interesting. Another time. And with Puleio now at the helm, with his apparent intelligent approach to the Limón legacy, I expect that to be soon.