writers on dancing

Letter from New York

José Limón Dance Company

In the late 1960’s, a generation of choreographers coming of age took a look at Modern Dance and decided that they could do better. The classes with Robert Dunn at the Cunningham studio, as well as the twinkling example of Merce Cunningham’s own strange and beautiful collaboration with John Cage, encouraged them to disconnect movement from its historic relationship—dysfunctional, the young tyros thought—to music. The ascetic discipline of technique went out the window. The idea that a dance should be “well made,” with a definitive beginning, middle, and end, became a joke: life wasn’t well-made, at least not that way, and it was fussy and old-fashioned to think that the theater might benefit from such clarity. Who needed clarity? Well, general audience; but, then, who needed them, either? As for “meaning”—the notion that a dance might have something specific to say about the moral universe that only a dance could articulate—that was considered so irrelevant, so out of the loop of the moment, that it became the stuff of parody and satire. Cool was in; irony was in; talking out loud if you had something to say was in. It was a very interesting time to be young, and since the economy of New York permitted one to live and work on the cheap, the very idea that one had a responsibility to entertain an audience, much less to enlighten it about humanist values, was dismissed along with the bid for the Presidency by Hubert Humphrey. Running under all of this, like a motor going 24/7, were the horrors, televised nightly, of the Vietnam War and the increasing recognition of governmental lying about it. Humanism was a pale and pathetic gesture in a world of betrayal, assassination, and paranoic spying. And no one more than José Limón summed up for the new generation everything that was agéd, weakened, sanctimonious, humorless, and hyperbolically theatrical about the Humanism—the Old Left Humanism—of American Modern Dance. It was time for a New Left, for a New Dance.

Three decades later, the New Dance is now the Old Order: the leading choreographers, company directors, artistic directors and administrators of theaters and leading performance series. And they’ve discovered that the general audience is useful to putting on a show and paying salaries. But the general audience is no longer what it once was, either. It doesn’t have as much discretionary income for theatergoing, and even if it did, ticket prices have been stratospherically unaffordable. It no longer associates dance with the prestige of artmaking or intellectual endeavor. Indeed, it no longer values intellectual endeavor: what good are ideas for their own sake when the bills come pouring in? At home, there is no time to cherish art with the kids. At school, there are no longer arts programs, and the kids, left to their own devices, grow up to choose what the record-company conglomerates and movie studios and cable stations say they should choose. Dance was once associated with the joy of living, but who’s enjoying life? People now live longer, which means that it’s more difficult to get health insurance and more likely that they’ll lose their jobs before they’re ready to stop working. Otherwise, the next generation won’t be able to embark on adulthood. It’s a tough sell today, dance.

Ironically, this is also exactly the moment when audiences and dancers seem to be rediscovering the virtues of José Limón. My goodness, here’s a dance I can understand! Here’s an art that cares about people! Here’s a technique I can transfer to other choreographers and situations! Here’s an artist who feels! As it turns out, the intensity of those feelings and the images conveying them originated in experience that few other American choreographers would want to undergo. “Limón: A Life Beyond Words,” a new film documentary, based on the choreographer’s unfinished memoirs (which have been published under the expert editorial hand of Lynn Garafola) and using archival performance footage as well as interviews with his siblings and admiring members of the dance world, explains that by the time he reached the age of most of the people who dismissed him in the 60’s and 70’s, he had seen a young uncle shot through the brain in his native Mexico during a revolution, witnessed the execution of another man on the train to the United States, watched his infant brother die during the journey (Limón was the eldest of 13 children, only six of whom survived to adulthood), and saw his beloved and exhausted mother die at the age of 34. He wanted to be a painter, became discouraged, took up dance in bleak despair, and turned out to be good at it. His dances are no less humorless once one knows this, and the intensity, unrelieved, can be difficult to take, still. Yet their extraordinary musicality—his father was a musician—and integrity in both form and message seem more immediate and affecting today than when I first saw his company in the last year or two of his life. And the current group of dancers in the company he founded are not only fine technicians but also willing instruments for a perspective on life the choreography represents. Every one of them knows why he or she is on stage, and the focus, even more than the physical prowess, make this company’s appearances an event for dancegoers in our time.

To take one example: At this point, Limón’s unaccompanied 1970 showpiece for men, “The Unsung” (its conceit is that the most famous and powerful Native American chiefs of the 19th century have convened for a super powwow in the course of which each chief dances out his own story), is performed with so much conviction and finesse that it is a better work of art in fact than Twyla Tharp’s analogous suite in silence from the same year: “The Fugue”—whose most recent performance at the Joyce was, heartrendingly for someone who has followed that dance for several decades, crassly presented to sell the dancers to the audience. In theory, “The Fugue” is far superior to “The Unsung” as choreography: it’s more delicate, more complex, more mysterious, more classical in temperament. And while the individual solos of “The Unsung” are gems of composition, the overall structure (solos presented seriatum) is rigid and limiting in comparison to Ms. Tharp’s fluid deployment of her cast of constantly interacting three dancers. Yet dances don’t have theoretical realities; they have performance realities. So far in the 21st century, “The Unsung” has proved to be the richer dance experience.

The fact that there is a repertory to enjoy is one of the amazing achievements of the Limón company under the artistic direction of former company dancer Carla Maxwell. In addition to revivals and reconstructions of works by the founder, she has also chosen and commissioned repertory by other choreographers that is both appropriate and challenging of the dancers in a way that helps them all around. Some of her choices are misses: the new “Extreme Beauty” by German choreographer Susanne Linke is one of them. “Extreme Beauty” was chosen to showcase the women of the Limón company, but, oddly—apart from a brief passage where each is fastidiously individuated in solos on a downstage crossover—they move around in lockstep much of the time. Ms. Linke, known here for her own exquisite solos, has apparently glommed onto the most rigid and abstracting sort of passagework in Limón’s own choreography. The company’s reconstruction of his 1967 ensemble dance for the Holocaust, “Psalm”—which, at a running time of 30 minutes, has been pared down by half from the original—is insufferable in a similar way, despite some gorgeous passages of choreography, such as a crescendo of dancers running forward to the lip of the stage in overlapping lines, like the flow of a tide. Yet the love for what is beautiful in that dance, the love that surely prompted the reconstruction of half of it, is untouchable by criticism.

On the positive side this season are the choices—and performances—of Lar Lubovitch’s “Concerto Six Twenty-Two,” for which this company makes the best case I’ve ever seen for this widely produced work from 1986; Jirí Kyliàn’s immaculate “Evening Songs,” a 1987 chamber nocturne for four couples; Limón’s 1942 calling-card solo, “Chaconne,” performed with understated Castilian regalness by Raphaël Boumaïla at the performance I attended; Adam Hougland’s “Phantasy Quintet,” made for the company last year (and given a lovely review by Tobi Tobias, ); and, from the Limón company’s choreographer-in-residence, Donald McKayle, the woman’s solo “Angelitos Negros,” made in 1972, as part of a suite called “Songs of the Disinherited,” and revived last year. Its dancer, company star Roxane D’Orléans Juste, does become a real example of “extreme beauty” in it, and the Flamenco allusions rhyme with those in the “Chaconne” solo, which preceded “Angelitos Negros” on the program, in a wonderful Ruth St. Denis-Ted Shawn kind of way. Mr. McKayle is billed as the Limón company’s “Artistic Mentor”; his golden touch was also in evidence at the Ailey company last season. The dance world knows his quality; for the larger audience, though, he seems to be one of the great, unsung chieftans of American dance.—Mindy Aloff

First:  The Jose Limon Dance Company in "Psalm."
Second:  The Company in "The Unsung."

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 37
October 4, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Mndy Aloff



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last updated on October 4, 2004