Doris Humphrey wanted to acknowledge the innate nobility of humankind in the dances she made right up to her death in 1958. Out of chaos could come order, out of strife, unity. Her protégé, José Limón, shared her optimistic vision. In his own choreography, the tragically flawed men he sometimes played–like Othello and Judas Iscariot—were partially redeemed by remorse and expiation.
The Limón Dance Company is celebrating its 60th anniversary. That’s remarkable, considering that its founder died in 1972. Carla Maxwell, artistic director since 1978, must be doing something right. She certainly chose wisely in reviving two beautiful, small-scale pieces Humphrey made for Limón’s company in the 1940s, Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejías and Day on Earth; in offering Limón’s 1949 masterwork, The Moor’s Pavane; and in commissioning Lar Lubovitch to create a new piece. A revival of Limón’s 1971 Dances for Isadora shows off five of company’s fine women performers, and excerpts from A Choreographic Offering, Limón’s 1964 tribute to Humphrey, sends all the dancers soaring through ecstatic architectural patterns.
Day on Earth is a small marvel. Humphrey distills the cycle of life into a dance for four people: a man laboring to plow, sow, and harvest; a playful young girl who charms him; the woman he takes as his partner; and the little girl she bears. Every step, every gesture, every rhythmic shift is shaped by Humphrey’s grand idea. She shows us that the youn woman—as springy as a young animal—is no wife for the man; with her draped happily across his back, he works harder to plow. The older woman fits her strong, ample, movements to his. And the child, too, is a helpmeet, as well as a joy. In the end, when the man, woman, and girl lie down in front of a small bench and cover themselves with a silk sheet, the child sits quietly above them, gazing toward us—the green shoot pushing up through the withered plants beneath the sod. Raphaël Boumaïla, Roxane D’Orléans Juste, and Kristen Foote perform the roles of the Man, the Woman, and the Young Woman magnificently, with nuanced strength and tenderness, and Morgana Cragnotti is a sweet little cricket of a dancer. The music, Aaron Copland’s 1941 Piano Sonata (played by Michael Cherry), creates an American landscape, but this dance could be performed almost anywhere in the world, and people would weep.
If Humphrey was innovative in using a real child in a dance, she was equally bold in framing the bullfighter hero of Lament with two women, titled the Guardian of Destiny and Witness and Mourner, who speak excerpts from Federico Garcia Lorca’s eponymous poem. At the premiere, the witness was played by an actress, but company dancers Foote and Ryoku Kudo intone the lines with power and clarity, faithfully reproducing the rhythms and somewhat stagy intonations that Humphrey decreed. Their words not only lament and memorialize a master torero dead in the ring, they snare and stab and catch at his flesh. Humphrey made the role for Limón, of course, and meant to eulogize not only Lorca’s hero but all those slain in World War II. Roel Seeber, tall and extremely thin, is best when he attacks the invisible bull of death, his long arms and legs flashing like knives, or when he writhes as the fateful Guardian twists a rope (red as the blood Lorca keeps alluding to) around her arm and drives the rest of it down on him like a sword point. He’s less convincing, less weighty, simply striding across the arena. In this piece, too, there’s a kind of rebirth, generated by the healing veil of memory. Lorca’s images of mortality (“death laid eggs in the wound”) on one particular day “at five in the afternoon” resolve in the penultimate, “Nobody knows you. No. But I sing of you./ For posterity I sing of your profile and grace.”
I saw a splendid performance of The Moor’s Pavane. It’s Limón’s work, but Humphrey had a hand in it—helping choose the Henry Purcell music that fits this distillation of Shakespeare’s Othello so perfectly, and as Limón’s artistic adviser lending him her shrewd eye and her passion for telling economy. The tensions between the jealous Moor, his innocent wife, his vengeful “friend,” and the friend’s besotted wife are so delicately balanced in an ongoing court dance that the slightest shift of temperament threatens their whole small world. Francisco Ruvalcaba gives a magnificent performance as the Moor, gloomy suspicion teased into terrifying, air-lashing rage. As the Iago figure, Seeber is a good match for Ruvalcaba, able to wrap his spidery legs around his prey with horrid slyness. The greatly gifted Kudo brings out Emilia’s sensuality and her flirtatious, duplicitous nature, and D’Orléans Juste wonderfully captures Desdemona’s gentleness, her love for Othello, and her disbelief in the idea that he could mistrust her.
Kudo and D’Orleans Juste also excel in Dances for Isadora (set to Chopin piano pieces)—Kudo playing Duncan as passionate maenad, D’Orleans Juste as Duncan the flag-waving revolutionary. Kathryn Alter’s restrained portrait of a mother mourning her lost children (from Duncan’s somber Russian years) contrasts with Kristen Foote’s gorgeously fluid evocation of the youthful, spring-intoxicated Isadora. Maxwell performs the final scarf dance in which aging, tipsy Isadora invokes her previous “selves” before dying with her scarf wrapped around her neck. This last episode I’ve always found a bit maudlin, but Maxwell imbues it with thoughtful subtleties.
Despite my admiration for these versatile, wonderfully expressive dancers and their dedication to their heritage, I worry a little about occasional erosions in the Limón-Humphrey style. This was brought home by the matinée performance of A Choreographic Offering that I saw. It begins beautifully, with the entering dancers showing the breath-suspended lyricism that shapes the phrases Limón drew from Humphrey’s dances for his homage to her. Not far into the piece, I start to fall asleep. The choreographic rhythms are wedded to Bach’s quarter notes, rarely getting any swifter, but that’s never bothered me before. What’s missing are the dynamics that would provide contrast—the little sharpnesses, the sudden swoops, the happy plunges off balance. Everything looks careful, blanded out; I feel as if I’m watching the dance through a veil of reverence. The main thing that’s missing here (and very occasionally elsewhere) is that Limón-Humphrey way of seeming to draw suspended moments from the floor and up through the body, and of falling out of certain steps rather than simply putting a foot down.
Lubovitch’s Recordare honors Limón’s Mexican roots. It’s a charmer, and we get to see the dancers in new guises. In this lively gloss on Mexico’s Day of the Dead, the usually grave Ruvalcaba is the dapper, lusty hip twitching, skeleton figure who leads the revels and D’Orleans Juste the grieving widow he easily woos into a lusty dance. Ruvalcaba’s character later disguises himself as a big-titted women and pulls the drunken Bradley Shelver into a waltz. Jonathan Riedel appears as a pot-bellied devil with a waggling tongue, who both scares and amuses the villagers.
As in the real Day of the Dead festivals, acts that acknowledge death and remember the dead are leavened with pranks and celebratory dances.
Ken Foy’s terrific set imitates a carved wooden portal that can frame either a church or a little stage with a red velvet curtain. Out through the door comes the crowd, sombreros and shawls temporarily hiding their skeleton masks. The curtain opens to reveal masked “musicians” with cardboard instruments, then a frolicking bride and groom (Kyudo and Jonathan Riedel), then a couple (Katie Diamond and Seeber) with big troubles. The master of ceremonies plants a cleaver in Seeber’s skull, and Diamond performs vigorous resuscitation without (duh!) success. It takes a passing saint (Foote) to perform the necessary miracle. Lubovich found the perfect music for Recordare, selections from Elliot Goldenthal’s lively Juan Darien: A Carnival Mass. Anne Hould Ward designed the terrific costumes.
In its own impudent way, Recordare carries a message not unlike Humphrey’s and Limón’s. Death and birth circle endlessly, and joy, not to mention survival, depends on our gazing more toward the light than into the darkness.