Dante Puleio and Hilla Ben Ari On Highlighting Women’s Voices

"There’s such a cool female power ripping through the space."

José Limón (1908-1972) is known for being a pioneer of American Modern Dance as well as one of the greatest male dancers of the twentieth century. He fought hard for both his art form and the male body to be taken seriously on the concert stage. It is interesting then—and wonderful—that his company’s new program celebrates women. In Women’s Stories, opening on December 7 at New York Live Arts, the Limón Dance Company will perform three of the Company’s beloved works with all-female casts, as well as the world premiere of a reimagined classic from the female perspective.

A dancer on a blue-lit stage stands in arabesque
“Dances for Isadora”. Photo: Allison Armfield

Women’s Stories begins a new chapter of programming for the Company under Dante Puleio’s leadership. Puleio came on in March of 2020 as LDC’s sixth Artistic Director since its founding in 1946. The shutdown was challenging, of course, but it allowed him to think deeply about the Company and his role in it. “I was looking at Jose,” he told me, “and thinking about what he made, why he made it, how he made it. What it must have been like for a man of color to be making work like that in the 1950s and 60s.”

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Limón’s early works focused on his cultural heritage (he was born in Culiacán, Mexico and moved with his family to California when he was seven years old), and this is where Puleio focused, too, for his first few seasons as Artistic Director. But part of Puleio’s commitment to bringing Limón’s inclusive vision into the 21st century meant tackling the many social-political issues of the day, such as the current attack on women’s rights around the world. Limón was heavily influenced by the women in his life, so it wasn’t difficult to pull pieces from the repertory that celebrated them. When Puleio reached out to Israeli multidisciplinary artist Hilla Ben Ari about a possible new commission, everything fell into place. “The program just started to take on its own shape,” he said, “and I was like yeah, this feels like the story I want to tell, and the pieces I want to put together, for the evening.”

The first dance on the three-night program will be “Harpies,” a short excerpt from The Winged (1966). Puleio explained that it was a perfect opener because “there’s such a cool female power ripping through the space. I thought it was really nice context.” The five dancers, clad in “these beautiful unitards that were built in the 90s” (1996, to be exact), mimic the intricate patterns and rhythms of birds in flight. The music is by Simon Sadoff, with incidental music by Hank Johnson.

Two dancers stand on stage reaching their arms to the sky
“Dances for Isadora”. Photo: Allison Armfield

The second piece is Dances for Isadora (1971), a series of five solos set to Chopin’s piano music, and always a delight. The visceral, lovely work pays tribute to Duncan, who Limón regarded as his “dance mother,” as well as to the American dance legacy.

Opening the second half of the program is Orfeo (1972), one of the last works Limón choreographed in tribute to his late wife Pauline Lawrence Limón. Set to Beethoven’s “String Quartet Opus 95, #11”, the piece follows Orfeo in his grief-stricken quest to call Eurydice from the dead. But this time, Orfeo will be danced by a woman (Lauren Twomley).

While watching Jonathan Riedel reconstruct the piece for the Company last year, Puleio was struck by Twomley’s portrayal of Orfeo and found himself wondering if the role always had to be played by a man. “Can we have a woman playing Orfeo and a woman playing Eurydice, and can we reexamine who tells these stories of love and loss?” After watching Twomley and Mariah Gravelin as Eurydice dance together, the answer he came to was: we must.

Closing out the program will be the world premiere of the highly anticipated I Must Be Circumstanced (2023). The work is a multi-media reimagining of Limón’s masterpiece The Moor’s Pavane (1949), which itself is a choreographic adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Othello.

A dancer in a long-sleeved costume leans backward holding a handkerchief over her face
“I Must Be Circumstanced”. Photo: Christopher Jones

Like Othello, The Moor’s Pavane focuses primarily on the male perspective. The men (Othello and Iago) move the plot along, while the women (Desdemona and Emilia) follow and react. And like Othello, Limón’s version is set in a Renaissance court in Venice and delves into the recesses of human jealousy and revenge. It is set to the Baroque music of Henry Purcell, and the costumes are appropriately extravagant. The choreography, like much of Limón’s, is weighted and gestural. Spines curve, limbs reach and chests open. The women’s movements are often fluid, the men’s direct. There is a clear physical dialogue happening in the tight quartet, with sentences said and heard through bodies. Occasionally the women step off to the side and listen. At the height of the violence, Emilia blocks the audience’s view with her wide velvet skirts. When she steps away, the deed has already been done. Desdemona lies back, swan-like, dead.

When Puleio approached Ben Ari about a possible collaboration, it was this piece that she wanted to work with. “I felt an immediate connection and was deeply inspired by The Moor’s Pavane,” she told me. She was drawn to the quartet’s gender dynamics and the female characters’ “mute gestures and voiceless presence.” She wondered what would happen if she removed the male characters entirely and let the women’s bodies speak.

Ben Ari wanted to keep the structure of the quartet that Limón had created, though, so she decided to double the female characters. There would be two Desdemonas and two Emilias. Two life-sized projected dancers and two live dancers. Through a “hybrid choreography” based on The Moor’s Pavane’s movement vocabulary, the four entities could interact, reflect and mirror each other.

A dancer in a knee-length costume stretches over her own body on a stage
“I Must Be Circumstanced”. Photo: Christopher Jones

To bring the rest of the classic piece into the present time, Ben Ari and Puleio decided to reimagine the music and costumes as well. Israeli musician and composer Rea Mochiach joined the collaboration, reconstructing Purcell’s original score until it is barely—but not totally—unrecognizable. Israeli Costume Designer Hilla Shapira made contemporary adaptations of the Renaissance dresses. Gone is the velvet, the puffed sleeves, the petticoats. She strove for a style of “casual drama”: corsets that give way to t-shirt sleeves, onesies with fine ribbing and wide pants.

As for the choreography, Ben Ari worked with the four dancers (Mariah Gravelin, Frances Lorraine Samson, Jessica Sgambelluri and Savannah Spratt) to create new vocabulary based on the original movements. For several years, Ben Ari has been developing a “choreography of stillness” in her video installation work, which she describes as “holding a single position endlessly in a loop” and “static positioning.” The stillness challenges the linearity of the narrative and also relates to female trauma—the feeling of “being trapped between strain and ability… between fragility and resistance.” However, bringing this stillness to Limón’s movement was not enough for this project. She had to strip away much of the choreography and manipulate it to let the women’s body-voices be heard.

A dancer in a sleeveless one-shouldered costume reaches her arm into the air while seated on the ground
“Dances for Isadora”. Photo: Allison Armfield

“It was so fascinating to watch a visual artist choreograph,” Puleio said. “She works with form, she knows bodies, she knows how to move things through space. So, it’s not that much different from a choreographer. She gets to play with it and remold it a little bit.”

I Must Be Circumstanced promises to be an innovative, thought-provoking, and visually stunning piece. A poignant ending to a poignant evening. I do believe that Limón, who studied visual art at UCLA and New York School of Design and who loved the women around him very much, would be thrilled with Women’s Stories. It represents the kind of dance he loved most: deep, beautiful and bold.

Women’s Stories will be presented from December 7 through December 9 at 8 p.m. at New York Live Arts at 219 W. 19th Street in New York City. 

Dante Puleio and Hilla Ben Ari On Highlighting Women’s Voices