Limón Company Brings Modern Back to Its Roots
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The ambiance at Central Park’s SummerStage does not make it particularly easy to pay close attention to the finer points of a dance. Friday night, despite the steady trickle of late arrivals, and the mild cacophony of talking, swigging, and munching (all appropriate, of course, to al fresco theatrical decorum), the audience was attentive and enthusiastic. And with good reason. The Limón Dance Company provided a re-acquaintance with the work of its founder, José Limón, that was rousing despite the vagaries of the venue.
The program adjusted itself rather cannily to the likelihood that the spectators included those attracted by the free admission and an evening under the stars as well as die-hard dance aficionados. The evening began with short pieces and proceeded to longer ones, and the second part of the program consisted only of Limón’s “The Moor’s Pavane,” allowing the audience to digest its somber distillation of Shakespeare’s “Othello.”
Also included were works by younger choreographers working under the influence of Limón ‘s idiom. The first work was Jirí Kylián’s “Evening Songs.” Simple and concise, it is one of his best works. Performed by six dancers to Dvorak lieder, “Evening Songs” isn’t portentous, but gathers dramatic power by devices such as the upstage, backward-walking exits of the dancers at its conclusion. Next we saw “Etude,” choreographed by Carla Maxwell, the Limón Company’s artistic director. Danced by Kristen Foote to a piece of Schubert lieder, it was nice but seemed incomplete, as if it was a fragment from a larger work. Perhaps it is.
The rest of the program was devoted to Limón ‘s own work, which, unfortunately, is not seen as often and as widely as it deserves. First came a solo from Limón ‘s “Orfeo,” which made its premiere in 1972, the year that Limón died. Brandishing a lyre, Francisco Ruvalcaba knit together Limón ‘s spare and elegantly phrased falls, leg swivels, and skittering bourrees.
Limón ‘s “A Choreographic Offering,” created in 1964 and set to Bach’s “A Musical Offering,” followed. In 1986, Paul Taylor choreographed his eponymous work to the same music in a different orchestration and, although Taylor’s treatment is magisterial and highly personal, it remains indebted to Limón ‘s.
Watching Limón ‘s “A Choreographic Offering” now is somewhat startling, for the work adheres to an aesthetic of modern dance abstraction that is something of an anomaly today, given the contemporary preference for fractured narrative and postmodern potpourri. The way these excerpts first and foremost engaged the eye with endlessly interesting and varied design invention proved their distinctive virtue. The 12 dancers array themselves in asymmetrical thickets, arms linked in lattice patterns or swung behind their backs. When the music subsides they slow down to a walk, and we appreciate this return to the most basic of human locomotions. But usually their bodies dip and fall, and swing pendulum-style. Steps morph unpredictably: In a jump, legs flare out into the air but land in parallel position.
Limón ‘s 1949 “Moor’s Pavane” is probably his best-known and most frequently performed work. Subsumed by stately retreats and advances, drawings together and apart common to so many dances of the late Renaissance, Shakespeare’s tragedy is conveyed coherently and affectingly to music by Purcell. Dramatic incidents, particularly twocharacter exchanges, are interspersed with patterns of the pavane involving all four dancers. For heightened dramatic affect, Limón isolates figures and patterns from court dance vocabulary, while developing extensively his own helix configurations. Dancers move seamlessly from center stage to peripheral positions, according to their importance, at each step of the narrative. At the end of the work, the characters Iago and Emilia (here called “His Friend” and “His Friend’s Wife”) stand downstage, framing portals for the scene of Desdemona’s murder.
Throughout Friday night’s splendidly performed program, the resolutely non-balletic quality of even steps obviously derivative of ballet technique made the material intriguingly different from much modern dance performed these days. The Limón dancers almost always used turned-in legs and flexed feet, and performed steps with entirely different rhythms than would be used in balletic pronunciation. The sensation was of seeing modern dance at its most unalloyed.