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Limón Dance Company

'Suite From A Choreographic Offering,' 'The Traitor,' 'Psalm'

by Carmel Morgan

January 16, 2009 -- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Eisenhower Theater, Washington, DC

The Limón Dance Company recently appeared as part of the Kennedy Center’s year-long “Modern Masters” program.  They claimed to be still celebrating founder José Limón’s 100th birthday, although technically 101st birthday celebrations were in order since his birthday was January 12, 1908.  Artistic Director Carla Maxwell, a former principal dancer with the Limón Dance Company, designed a special program to highlight “the genius of Limón as a choreographer and major contributor in the formation of the American Modern Dance.”  The company presented three seminal works: “Suite From A Choreographic Offering,” “The Traitor,” and “Psalm.”

“Suite From A Choreographic Offering” premiered in1964 and is performed to Johann Sebastian Bach’s “A Musical Offering.”  Limón created “Offering,” which was commissioned by the American Dance Festival as a tribute to his mentor and teacher Doris Humphrey, based on movement from Humphrey’s dances.  “Offering” is thrilling gift.  Dancers in two-toned costumes of pink and purple-brown initially seem to be couples waltzing.  Arms enjoin, scoop, and mark the space with sharp angles.  Solos, duets, and quintets follow, and a dance for twelve concludes the work.

One definitely feels the presence of Humphrey in the clean, precise technique.  Graceful and strong, the dancers’ chins sometimes point to the ceiling, their feet flexed.  Arms go up in the air like joyous parishioners, praising Humphrey’s dances and her spirit, or they swell in curves to hug an invisible figure, or they rest above a dancer’s head in the shape of a heart.  The movement is musical, breathy, and buoyant, and the unison of the group sequences is stunning.  Even when the movement is sometimes physically awkward – an ear to the floor, a fall, a severely tilted head – elegance erupts.  An ache resembling longing results.  It reminds one of the first poke of green through the snow or buds on a branch signaling the arrival of spring.  At one point, the dancers’ hands even mimic rain, a sure sign of regeneration and new life.  Indeed, Humphrey’s dancing lives on through these company members.

“The Traitor,” a work performed by eight male company members, also impressed.  The piece was first performed in 1954, and its revival was made possible through the National Endowment for the Arts American Masterpiece: dance initiative.  Limón said that “The Traitor” was inspired by his experience of horror at the execution of two Americans for treason and at the spectacle of Russians who defected to the West, abandoning their country.*  Long-limbed Jonathan Frederickson danced the role of “The Leader,” while “The Traitor” was Francisco Ruvalcaba.  “The Traitor” bulges with painterly images of the Last Supper, including a stark white cloth that when held taut becomes a table that is cleverly manipulated by the dancers.  The dancers are dressed in bold colors: a mob of clownish purple, gold, green, and red.  Tension abounds.  There are fists, kicks, ducks, tosses, pouncing lunges, and silent screams.  In this struggle of the heart, something sinister lurks, calling for self-examination.

Finally, the company presented “Psalm,” which debuted in 1967 and was restaged with a new score in 2002 during the Winter Olympics.  Raphaël Boumaïla performed the role of “The Just Man,” while the “Expiatory Figures” were Roxane D’Orléans Juste and Kristen Foote.  Limón described the work as “an evocation of the heroic power of the human spirit, triumphant over death itself.”  The dancers wear mostly gray, with hints of color at the sleeves and pleats.  Drama emerges from the relationship between “The Just Man,” who at times seems tormented by loneliness, and the rest of the group.  When the two “Expiatory Figures” surround Boumaïla, they touch his head and toes and appear to awaken him.  Yet he later falls at their feet.  Later still, he is lifted Superman-style into the air by the Psalmists surrounding him.  They circle him, and he circles them, but he is never quite a member of the flock.

One interesting shape created by the dancers is a figure, knees bent and resting on the ground, with one arm touching the floor and the other arm curled back.  It is at once bewildering and beautiful, like a gangly insect.  Such shapes and surprises flourish in “Psalm,” and proliferate fluidly.  Although the source of the intense drama is never completely clear, the dancing and music, both complex, hold the audience’s interest.  How fortunate the dance world is that more than 100 years after his birth Limón lives on through his namesake company, which performs not only his works but those by contemporary choreographers who continue his legacy.

* See “José Limón: An American Accent” in “The Modern Dance: Seven Statements of Belief,” ed. Selma Jean Cohen, Wesleyan University 1965.

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