When José Limón died in 1972, he left a world from which most of his ideals seemed to have evaporated, and a memoir written in longhand on a yellow legal pad. His choreography and style of movement, which glorified heroic, tragic figures— Othello, Jesus, the Emperor Jones— were being eclipsed by a more casual way of dancing. The politics of multiculturalism were as yet a dream. This immigrant son of a Mexican musician, oldest of a dozen children, created some world-class modern dance, but the company he left behind had no real management. For years its fate hung in the balance.
The troupe is on a roll now; its lyrical repertory still speaks to a wide audience. Limón’s fascinating history is newly uncovered as well. Designer Charles Tomlinson donated the yellow pad to the New York Public Library’s Dance Collection, and it has been twice resurrected. José Limón: An Unfinished Memoir (Wesleyan University Press, $29.95) has just been published, and next week a documentary film of the artist’s life and work, largely based on the material in the memoir, receives a work-in-progress screening at the 92nd Street Y, with producer Ann Vachon, director Malachi Roth, and Limón company director Carla Maxwell in attendance. Deborah Jowitt, a sometime Limón dancer who contributed a knowing, affectionate introduction to the book and appears in the film, will moderate the evening.
“True artistry is an inborn incandescence, a diadem, nimbus, panoply,” writes Limón, who shares, in often superheated prose, illuminating stories about his relationship with Martha Graham and other great figures of the ’30s and ’40s. But his long battle with cancer kept him from going much farther. His history ends just before he is drafted into World War II; archivist Norton Owen, director of the Limón Institute, summarizes the rest of the saga, charting the masterworks the choreographer produced after the war. Editor Lynn Garafola has done a superb job of scholarship, annotating the text and providing an exhaustive catalogue of the dances.
Limón grew up with the century, was buffeted by its struggles, felt his universe and its traumas in a visceral way, and transformed his passions into enduring dances. The book is much more than a reference work; it’s a rare, intensely personal glimpse of an artist and his time.
Beyond Words: The Life of José Limón will be screened Monday at 8:15 at the 92nd Street Y; call 996-1100 for information.