Dance company retains vision despite loss of its founder

The continued survival of the Limon Company after the death of its founder is a remarkable story, especially compared to what has happened to other dance groups that try to continue without the person who set the vision.

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Limon Dance Company

The continued survival of the Limon Company after the death of its founder is a remarkable story, especially compared to what has happened to other dance groups that try to continue without the person who set the vision.

It was unfortunate that a number of people left before the last piece of the Limon Dance Company concert at Meany Hall last Thursday night. The concert was too long, but had they stayed they would have witnessed the most lively and engaging work of the evening.

“Come With Me” was described as a “special preview” of a new dance by choreographer Rodrigo Pederneiras, artistic director of Grupo Corpo, the hugely popular Brazilian troupe that last appeared at Meany a year ago. It is the first time that Pederneiras has set a dance on an American group, and it coincides with the celebration of the Limon Company’s 65th year since its founding.

Pederneiras’ movement fuses the easy hips and backs of Afro-Brazilian dance, with influences from other styles such as jazz, ballet, and hip-hop. They are closely integrated with the dynamics and rhythms of the music he chooses for his individual dances.

“Come With Me's" score is a rich new composition by the masterful Cuban American composer and musician Paquito D’Rivera, commissioned for the dance by the Limon Company. In turns lyrical, playful, and propulsive, the music is a beautiful match for the lively choreography devised by Mr. Pederneiras. A plethora of quick feet and darting legs had the dancers hopping and stepping animatedly around the stage.

As counterpoint to their lower extremities were the performer’s loose arms, which easily moved in tandem with their legs and flexible backs, rather than being placed into more rigid formal positions. Enriching the excellent dancing by the Limon company was a special appearance by guest artist Diogo De Lima, a mainstay of Grupo Corpo, who supplied some quicksilver interpretations of his own.

The Limon Company holds a special place in contemporary American dance. Doris Humphrey, who co-founded Limon in 1946, is a pioneer of the “modern” dance. Jose Limon had been a long-time dancer in the company that Humphrey co-directed with her colleague Charles Weidman, before she joined with Limon as artistic director of his new group. Limon himself was a majestic and dramatic figure; a Mexican American who brought his cultural heritage and humanism to bear on his original choreography.

After Limon’s death in 1972 (Humphrey passed away in 1958), his troupe persevered rather than disbanding. It was the first time a single choreographer modern company had maintained its existence after the death of its founder. Over the years the company has expanded its repertoire to include not only the works of Mr. Limon, which were many, but — through commissions and acquisitions —the dances of other noted contemporary choreographers.

The continued survival of the Limon Company is a remarkable story, especially compared to the soap opera of the Martha Graham troupe after her death, or the recent dissolution of Merce Cunningham’s superb company.

Mr. Limon’s work, even when abstract, is always invested in the human condition, full of emotion, drama, and heroic portrayals. Not light-hearted, it can — at times — be on the melodramatic side.

In addition to “Come With Me,” the company’s appearance at Meany gave us three important works from the Limon canon. Two were inspired by court dances, “Chaconne,” and the “The Moor’s Pavane,” while the third, “There Is A Time,” created variations on the circle, perhaps the most elemental and earliest geometry used for human dance.

“Chaconne” was the oldest work on the program, created as a solo by Limon for himself in 1942 while still a dancer with the Humphrey-Weidman Company. The dance is replete with clearly defined, angular, and direct movements. It is simple and elegant, infused with emotional intensity. The tall, majestic, and macho Limon must have been quite striking when he performed it as a young man. I was not able to see the Saturday night performance when Kathryn Alter was to dance the role, but was intrigued with the idea of the interpretation a woman might fashion.

The musical accompaniment is JS Bach’s “Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D Minor for Violin.” Interesting that the pious Bach’s somewhat somber music is related to a “robust and raucous” dance from the New World, variations of which subsequently gained popularity in Europe.

Raphael Boumalia ably performed the piece with the clarity it merited, though perhaps without te full emotional impact intended by the choreographer. His performance was somewhat hampered by an overly expansive shirt that at times obscured the movements of his upper torso.

The evening opened with a newly staged revival of “There is a Time,” created in 1956 using chapter three of Ecclesiastes as its inspiration: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” The music is a modernist score by Norman Dello Joio, “Meditations on Ecclesiastes,” commissioned for the dance and for which the composer won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for 1957.

It opens with a circle of dancers who move as a community and evolves into multiple scenes, each expressing a “time” from the biblical text: laugh, mourn, dance, kill, heal, peace, etc. This is Limon at his best, each section portraying the divinity that is within each body, all expressed through the sacredness of dance.

“The Moor’s Pavane” is generally considered to be Limon’s masterwork and has been performed by many dance companies, including Pacific Northwest Ballet. Premiered in 1949 and based on Shakespeare’s “Othello,” it is a quartet centering on the dramatic interplay between Othello, Iago, and their wives Desdemona and Emilia. Its kinetic lexicon is earthbound, offering the passionate work a grounding that makes the players seem to resist the inevitable gravitational pull towards the tragic ending.

Limon chose to make this piece a semi-literal narrative, as opposed to being more removed from the storyline. Its brilliance was to use the pavane, a stately court dance for couples, as its frame. Limon’s choreography gives the performers tremendous latitude to portray their characters through individualized movement and the gestural language that moves the action along.

Necessarily relying on the performance chops of the dancers, I found this “Pavane” rather pallid, particularly the performance of Othello by Francisco Ruvalcaba. Perhaps it was his size. One tends to think of Othello, here called “The Moor,” as a large man, but Ruvalcaba’s bland portrayal and smaller mass seemed to leave him swimming in the voluminous robe that was his costume.

Dante Puleio as the conniving Iago, “The Friend,” had some powerful and convincing moments, but overall this performance of “The Moor’s Pavane” lacked the dramatic core needed to make it more than just a dance rendition of a familiar story.

There were also a few disconcerting elements throughout the performance that detracted from its overall effectiveness. The lighting was rather unimaginative and unnecessarily dim. The sound quality of the music for the Limon pieces was shallow and tinny as if the recordings needed updating, especially compared with the lush and crisp D’Rivera score.

Finally, the Meany stage seemed at times too large for the intimacy of the Limon work, especially with such non-supportive lighting design. Perhaps moving the side wings and back traveler in a bit to reduce its size might have helped.

In an age when contemporary dance companies all too often blast us with an incessant stream of movement that passes for meaning, it is good to every now and then see the carefully considered work of an earlier generation of choreographers. The greatest delight of this particular evening though was to see the dancers bust loose gloriously in the Pederneiras work, giving the Limon Company one foot in the past, and one very much in the present.


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