Kyle Abraham, Layard Thompson, and the Limón Company Explore Their Histories


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 orbit—first 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 works—The Moor’s Pavane, a revival of The Traitor (1954), and the abridged version of A Choreographic Offering—the 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 dancing—sometimes 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 blurred—and 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.

I wonder if Limón happened to see Rooms back in the1950s. His visions were never this grim, but the strength, integrity, and human insights of the choreography would surely have impressed and moved him.

I first saw Kyle Abraham’s work when he was getting his MFA at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He’s come great distances since then, finding his voice as a performer-choreographer and investigating his identity as a gay African-American male. A solo, Dream Lockdown
, that he performed on one of DanceNOW’s October programs, confirmed his talents. In that, alternately fluid and jerky, he seemed to be in a simultaneous process of becoming and falling apart. In his new solo, Brick, at DTW, he channels stylistic aspects of two sources: Kara Walker’s cut-out-silhouette scenes and work by the 17th-century Japanese artist Hishikawa Moronobu. At first, back to us, wearing a very bouffant Afro wig and a hoodie over full black pants, he strikes positions against a white paneled backdrop that allude to Walker’s images of violence against African Americans; an associate traces the outline of this living silhouette (later shapes of white light fill those outlines). When Abraham sheds the wig (more of them rise on wires as décor), he reveals black body paint and a gleaming corselet. Against a background of twin slides showing what I took to be a Japanese river town in the rain, his wonderfully expressive body sometimes suggests Moronobu’s influence in its settled clarity, its slow gestures, and the way his hands flick the space around him. Yet his rippling arms, hips, and shoulders also reach back to Africa and forward to hip-hop. At one point, when rap breaks out in the collage score, his undulations toughen until he’s punching the air.

Abraham’s The Dripping Kind began as an installation, and it retains a sculptural calm—simple but vibrant in space. Dancers enter one by one in silence at a leisurely pace and assume a position in profile—standing on tiptoe, one foot forward, body curved over, arms hanging. Each of them (Jenn Freeman, Chelamar Bernard, Maureen Damaso, Nicole Mannarino, Sumaya Jackson, Evan Copeland, Meghan Merrill) is bent to a different degree, as if Abaham wanted to depict the stages of melting. In various combinations, they stagger forward, getting closer and closer to the ground, roll one way and then the other, rise and retreat to their poses. They do this for quite a while, and it’s always interesting. Another repeated and varied action reinforces the strangely poignant tone. Mannarino braces herself in a pushup position, and the others take turns entering and crawling under the bridge of her body; when her visitor lies supine, she lowers herself onto him or her and rests there for a short while. Then she pushes up again, and the person leaves. Sometimes she puts these guests’ arms around her, or they embrace her. Merrill, her last “lover,” stays the longest, and after some gentle, but strong passages of movement by the group, Merrill places Mannarino in the same half-melting embrace of empty air that Mannarino earlier molded her into, then walks away, leaving her friend alone on the darkening stage. The music’s by Arvo Pärt, Thomas Brinkmann, and Gabriela Montero, and Abby Geartner joins the dance at some point.

Layard Thompson, who shares the program with Abraham, is also into exploring identity, which he does with the uninhibited gusto of a wild child and the calculation of a savvy artist. The title of his Cup… puC……K……Ohhhh, Beauty, full, vessel: is as elaborately (somewhat maddeningly) playful as the 45-minute work. Like his acknowledged mentor, Deborah Hay, he can be both impish and primal. He begins by making his way down an aisle, wearing an amazing, full-skirted dress made of take-out coffee cups and smaller cardboard lids. Machine Dazzle collaborated on the mic’d outfit, which clanks as he crawls and swings along. His lower body is confined in clear plastic trash bags, so he appears, unnervingly, to be legless.

The first part of the piece is an elaborate unveiling in more ways than one. Thompson emerges from the dress, then finds many ways to get out of the many bags whose red ties hang around his neck like coral jewelry. All the while, he howls and hoots and talks gibberish, eventually ripping his way through the last sacks, even as he plays with their possibilities (suffocation? No, maybe not). His lean, fit body clad only in briefs, he explores those white cotton undergarments as if he both knew and refused their function (aren’t I the naughty boy?). At one point in their destruction, a long strip of fabric passes between his legs and around his neck, uncomfortably sharing his crotch with his now exposed genitals. Eventually, his consonantless gabble reveals what’s he’s struggling to articulate: “Here is my handle, here is my spout. . . .” And indeed quite a lot of pouring out does go on. On Thompson’s agenda are peeing while resting face down on the floor, climbing into a plastic trash can and showering off with a jumbo bottle of water, putting on several items of clean underwear in unlikely ways, loping like a gorilla, trying some makeshift percussion, standing on the inverted trash can (fortunately emptied into a pot) with a paper bag over his head, crawling under a long paper-cup coverlet and emerging as a sort frilled lizard with a large ruff of clear-plastic glasses (a magic moment). As a conclusion, he retrieves a thermos and a cup from his discarded dress, and tells us all the healthful, stimulating ingredients in the hot drink he pours out and gives to us to pass around.

The piece could certainly be call self-indulgent, but Thompson’s every crazed move is both calculated and layered with wit. Whatever you may think, you can’t take your eyes off him.

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