Take the High Road with Limón—Modest, Serious, Uncompromised

To go to the Limón Dance Company is to find yourself in a prelapsarian world—the world of Modern Dance as it was imagined and embodied by the Founders: Martha Graham and, in particular, Doris Humphrey and her protégé and colleague José Limón, who carried the torch of high seriousness and high ideals until he died, in 1972, and whose successors carry it still. This is dance that never dreamed of postmodernism, that never divorced itself from spirituality and aspiration. Even when it’s light-hearted, it’s serious—there isn’t a whiff of irony, malice or superciliousness. How amazing that it’s kept going—for 58 years now—without compromising its virtue.

This strain of loftiness may at times seem overearnest, but in today’s debased context of Eurotrash, autobiographical posturing and empty technical calculation, it demands attention and respect. The Limón Company, the only important modern- dance company that has uninterruptedly survived its founder, has been run since 1978 by Carla Maxwell, a former prominent dancer. Its members are hard-working, exacting, attractive, modest; the dance pieces with which it fleshes out the Limón repertory are serious in intention and honest in execution. Its one gesture to trendiness this season—bringing in Lar Lubovitch’s 1986 Concerto Six Twenty-two for its Program A—only underlines the difference between the Limón aesthetic and the kind of emptiness that a Lar Lubovitch typifies. Although this faux-joyous work, to a Mozart clarinet concerto, is confident that it’s giving the audience a good time, everything about it is derivative and thin. Are we meant to believe that it’s in the same ballpark with such truly joyous works as Graham’s Diversion of Angels or Paul Taylor’s Aureole? And are we meant to be stunned by the daring of the male duet that constitutes the adagio? Concerto is by no means the worst of Lubovitch—the vacuous pieces he’s been turning out for A.B.T. in the last few years are considerably drearier—but Lubovitch even at his slick best sticks out from the Limón repertory like a cute thumb.

Opening Program A was a Limón work called The Unsung. I’m afraid the “Unsung” are, as the program notes identify them, “the heroic defenders of the American patrimony,” from Tecumseh to Geronimo. On this occasion there were seven of them, possibly because there are seven men in the company. (Accounts of the original production specify eight, and eight chiefs are named in the notes.) I’m also afraid that there was no music, just stomping. The men are bare-chested, their leggings sporting leather fringe. Their movement is large and emphatic, sculpted; their hands are often framed above their heads, in tribute, perhaps, to war bonnets. They move in smooth combinations, and then the solos begin. One, two, three … by number four you realize there are going to be seven. It’s a bad moment. The solos are no doubt subtly differentiated, and they were all honorably performed, but—sorry—they were so boring. The Unsung was made by Limón in 1970, but it looks much older; in 1970 this kind of thing was already retro, a throwback (or homage) to the founding father Ted Shawn, who spent a lot of time being an Indian with a bare chest.

Paired with The Unsung was a new piece by the German Susanne Linke, Extreme Beauty, which began with three women moving forward very slowly, and then doing it again, and again. There are five women in all, the central one being the company’s leading dancer, Roxanne D’Orléans Juste, a small woman with a strong face and powerful projection. Eventually a ceremony takes place—real or surreal—for which some striking images have been invented involving white ribbed hoops and a huge white cloth that’s wrapped around the heroine. A wedding? And why are four of the women wearing shiny red high-heeled shoes upside-down on their heads? We’ll never know, but it makes an impression. Linke’s intense proceedings suit the Limón sensibility, but having Extreme Beauty follow The Unsung without an intermission—one hour and 20 minutes of unrelieved worthiness—was unkind.

The program to see is Program B. Jirí Kyliàn is not a choreographer I like, but his Evening Songs is a calm and touching piece to Dvorak choral music. (No texts are provided, so who knows what’s being said.) Then comes a famous Limón solo, Chaconne, set to Bach’s Partita No. 2. This is an extended and sincere work, and it was estimably performed by Jonathan Riedel, who held it together without pushing. Other performances will be by another male dancer and by Ms. Juste, and I suspect that she’ll come closest to displaying the kind of very special stage presence that José Limón himself had and that a work so concentrated really demands. She certainly held the stage in the next solo, Donald McKayle’s Angelitos Negros, to a passionate rendition (in Spanish) by Roberta Flack of a song of that name which asks the question, “Painter, why are there no black angels in the Sistine Chapel? Won’t they go to heaven too?” Juste is costumed in a flaring dress with bare midriff and back, and a long skirt with lots of ruffles and a great deal of dripping black fringe, and she makes the most of the usual Spanishisms that this kind of piece inevitably involves. It’s very accomplished and effective, though it made me ask myself yet again whether Latins really do hold a monopoly on the world’s anguish.

All this before the intermission, as well as a piece by Adam Hougland, an ex-member of the company, set to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Phantasy Quintet and led by Brenna Monroe-Cook and the extremely impressive Francisco Ruvalcaba. This work is so well-constructed, so well-articulated and so well-intentioned that it’s easy to go overboard about it—oh, the relief of seeing a decent dance by a young choreographer. The Quintet, like the Kyliàn work, was robed in white, and its roots lie in Graham technique as well as in Limón. It’s particularly satisfying in the way it uses its five supporting dancers in juxtaposition with the central in-love couple—no forced ingenuities, yet consistently interesting. Phantasy Quintet isn’t out there trying to please, like the Lubovitch; it just pleases.

The final event of the season was a major Limón revival, his visionary 1967 Psalm. All 13 of the company’s dancers take part in this highly ambitious work, ambitious most of all in its theme: the presence among us of the 36 Just Men who absorb the sufferings of mankind and without whom mankind could not survive. Limón imagines one of the Just, whose struggle “would be an evocation of the heroic power of the human spirit, triumphant over death itself.” The dancers are all in gray, and they tend to mass in groups of four, their arms and eyes repeatedly raised to the sky. Among them threads the Just Man, danced by the extraordinary Robert Regala, a small, slight figure, head shaven, whose physical presence and way of moving are in startling contrast to his colleagues, who tend to be solid and grave while he’s amazingly light on his feet and allegro quick. He certainly bears no resemblance to Limón himself, who was tall and commanding. Psalm, heavy though it may be, is so urgent in its determination to communicate its message, and so certain of the importance of that message, that we can only respond by saluting its ambition and integrity.

Can you imagine a dance piece with such an old-fashioned, high-minded scenario being performed by any other contemporary group? The only choreographer today who proceeds with comparable dogged honesty and strength of moral purpose is Doug Varone—a Limón Company graduate. Limón caught the spirit from Doris Humphrey, who also addressed the larger questions (I’m sorry that we didn’t get a Humphrey work this year), and his company, 32 years after his death, is keeping the spirit alive. A steady diet of the higher truths might prove exhausting, but it’s important that we acknowledge their validity and celebrate their survival.