By Tom Sellar
By Emily Warner
By R.C. Baker
By Alexis Soloski
By Alexis Soloski
By R. C. Baker
By Alexis Soloski
By Tom Sellar
José Limón was born in 1908, and what's remarkable about this centennial is that, although he died in 1972, his company and his teachings are still thriving. The José Limón Dance Foundation was honored this year with a National Medal of Arts for Lifetime Achievement. Carla Maxwell, who accepted the medal in a White House ceremony, has lived a good part of her own life in Limón's creative orbitfirst as a dancer and, for the past 30 years, the organization's artistic director.
A company that has lost its main sources of choreography (in this case, not only Limón but his mentor Doris Humphrey) has the difficult mission of funding or commissioning works that will complement the existing repertory but not clash with it. In addition to presenting three major Limón worksThe Moor's Pavane, a revival of The Traitor (1954), and the abridged version of A Choreographic Offeringthe company chose to open its Joyce season with a premiere by Clay Taliaferro and a revival of Anna Sokolow's magisterial 1955 Rooms. A brave move.
Taliaferro was a leading dancer in the Limón repertory for a number of years, and he dedicated his Into My Heart's House to Ruth Currier, a founding member of the company and, for a time, its artistic director. He understands the Humphrey-Limón vocabulary, with its powerful interplay between attraction to the earth and the rebound from it. Falling and recovering formed the basis of Humphrey's profoundly humanistic vision of dancing. Anyone who has ever performed or studied the movement style relishes that breath-suspended moment before a sinking or plunging generates a new one. Taliaferro also has a grasp of Limón's interest in architectural groupings and three-dimensional, sculpture-in-motion designs.
This means that there are many beautiful moments in this flood of dancingsometimes overlapping or happening simultaneously. At one point near the end, the nine dancers are all curling and springing in individual patterns before they join again in unison, and they look as if they're at play in celestial fields. Taliaferro, however, isn't simply interested in presenting ecstatic dancing. Struggle is involved. And here's where his grasp on his idea loosens. The personal drama that runs through Into My Heart's House is unclear and sometimes clumsily executed. He uses very diverse pieces of music (including a mournful song in Russian by Valentin Silvestrov and selections by Nik Bartsch and Joanne Metcalf) to signal mood changes, which are abetted by Carol Mullins's subtly dramatic lighting. J.S. Bach's exalted music recurs to signal I'm not sure what. Spiritual awakening, maybe.
There's an arresting opening, in which the dancers rush in, with one, Katie Diamond, almost aggressive, and immediately Raphaël Boumaïla begins to sink slowly backward to the floor. The others look at him and go. He and another man (Ashley Lindsay), who's somehow connected to him, have problems that rarely concern the rest of this society. Lindsay wants to jump around, and the music keeps cutting out. In a later sequence, Lindsay dances confidently and intently in a corner, while Boumaïla fiddles around, trying out gestures (maybe those that Lindsay is executing), as if trying to remember them or guess them. This goes on for a long time and is neither well staged nor convincingly performed. When at the end of this duet, Boumaïla goes up to Lindsay and circles his arms as if to embrace him, Lindsay slips away. I think this may be one of those hard-to-show ideas: a living dancer as an aspect of another. There's also a mysterious searching solo for Kathryn Alter and a passage in which Ruping Wang is carried on aloft as if on a pall. But the resonance of whatever drama Taliaferro is unfolding is blurredand adrift in the rest of the dancing.
In Sokolow's Rooms, fastidiously mounted and coached by Jim May, nothing is blurred. The only flaw in a gripping performance opening night was the overamping of Kenyon Hopkins's fine jazz score; the too-blaring horn takes the city-streets ambiance to an ear-splitting level and counters the isolation of Sokolow's characters. These people sit in lonely rooms, defined by chairs set in squares of light (lighting design by Joshua Rose). What Sokolow shows us so simply and so powerfully are their dreams and fears. There is nothing of Limon's expansive lyricism here. These individuals are taut-bodied, narrow, unable to yield. They rise from their chairs as if in response to a hoped-for voice and sit back down. They paddle their feet in the air or slide them back and forth relentlessly. Every movement stems from a gesture, a silent outcry. Alone together, they lie across their chairs, drop their hands to the floor with a thud, and raise them like inadequate wings before dropping them again. The sound has the force of a muffled scream.
We see men and women suffering nightmares (Boumaïla) or reaching for a way out of loneliness, perhaps for a dream lover (the eloquent Roxane D'Orleans Juste). Hopkins must have collaborated closely with Sokolow, for every pause, every burst of music is integral to the choreography. In one of the most stunning solos, "Going," a man is literally goaded by a passage of drumbeats; they seem to be under his skin like red ants, driving him. He runs without getting anywhere; at the end, collapsed in exhaustion, he's still snapping his fingers (a terrific performance by Francisco Ruvalcaba). In "Panic," Daniel Fetecua Soto can't run enough to get away from his demons. And in the final solo, fragile Wang's wriggling fingers seem to be talking to her; standing on her chair, she trembles on the verge of suicide, as the others re-enter and take their places in a solitude that seems unending.