The best thing about the Limón Dance Company is that it takes itself and its mission seriously. This is, of course, also potentially the worst thing. The 72-year-old troupe, founded in Manhattan by the Mexican-American José Limón and his mentor/colleague Doris Humphrey, brings to the Joyce a program heavy on spirituality; it has always engaged serious themes, but this season the focus of the choreography turns to God and to whatever formulations Native American leaders may have held in lieu of monotheism.
The company’s publicity says its primary concern is “community.” In the spare opening work, Limón’s 1970 male septet The Unsung, bare-chested men in buckskin trousers create rhythms with their bare feet. There’s no musical accompaniment; the weight of the occasion is all on the performers, and they rise to it marvelously, as an ensemble and in solo sections. What we see is minimalism inflected with the sacred, as the dancers, each of whom is identified in the program with the name of a famous chief from an American tribe, move in concert, apparently preparing for battle or celebrating victory.
With very simple theatrical tools — just the occasional change in the hue or level of light — the work projects levels of threat to these warriors’ way of life. Performers focus on the ground or on the sky; even when they’re onstage together, their attention is less on one another than on some larger concern. It is clear that they are hunted, and probably doomed.
The seven men are all strong performers. I find it hard to tear my eyes from Jesse Obremski, one of the troupe’s youngest members, whose strength, clarity, and focus radiate from a secure central place. But the others — Mark Willis, David Glista, Terrence D.M. Diable, Alex McBride, Malik Williams and Tanner Myles Huseman — also capture the commitment of the native leaders.
The Body Is a House Without Walls, a new work for six women by the company’s current artistic director, Colin Connor, also seems to keep its focus on the otherworldly. After cutting one person out of a red dress, the group, costumed by Elysia Roscoe in floaty white garments, gambols around to Glenn Gould’s recording of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #32. The trouble here is that the Beethoven is challenging and complex; at one point I find myself tuning out the dancing to concentrate on the music. But by the end of The Body, I am wondering if we are not in purgatory. And sure enough, a program note tells us that the piece was inspired by the behavior of elephants toward their dead. Visible references are slight, but the spaced-out relationships imply a certain placelessness.
The two-hour program’s somber nature was interrupted opening night by Rosie Herrera’s Querida Herida. A trifle for two frantic women (three if you count the sweet gymnast, Angela Falk, who vamps during a costume change) and several dresses, it relies on gimmicky outfits by Bradon McDonald to communicate the relationship between Jacqueline Bulnes and Brenna Monroe-Cook. One unzips portions of the other’s black dress to reveal dazzling red-sequined internal organs; the other pulls a spiral zipper that deconstructs an entire garment, leaving its wearer in nude-toned undies. All good fun, but then they disappear and return in golden dresses. The central dynamic between the two leading women is never entirely clear.
Limón’s sixty-year-old Missa Brevis, to a fuzzy recording of Zoltán Kodály’s choral score, also claims to be a tribute to community, but in fact aims its glorious ensemble dancing primarily at heaven. Men in casual clothing and women in simple knee-length dresses perform the various parts of the Catholic mass, the company expanded to nineteen by visiting artists from Canada and Venezuela.
At thirty-four minutes Missa is not so brevis, and its organizing principle, focusing on a man (Mark Willis) redeemed by his participation in the group, gets lost in the general pageantry, but when it was new, during the Eisenhower administration, it moved the company into the front ranks of American dance, a spot it deserved then, and deserves now.
Limón Dance Company
175 Eighth Avenue
Through May 13