Limon Dance Company: A rare survival story

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  May 9, 2003 at 11:34 AM
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NEW YORK, May 9 (UPI) -- The Limon Dance Company is celebrating the 25th year of artistic direction by Carla Maxwell who is chiefly responsible for its survival after the death of company founder Jose Limon in 1972.

Modern dance companies rarely survive a founder's death, although those once headed by Robert Joffrey, Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey have managed to do so but not without difficulty. The 16-member Limon company is the prime example of how to keep a troupe alive and dancing at the same high artistic level established in the lifetime of its initiator.

The company's two-week engagement at the Joyce Theater ending Sunday proves that it not only continues to dance superbly works choreographed by Limon and his onetime mentor, Doris Humphrey, but is bringing new and fascinating dances by a younger generation of choreographers to the attention of the public. The program spans seven decades of dance-making in America.

"There has got to be more to the job than restaging and maintaining Limon repertory, especially when it is easier to raise money for new work than it is for a revival," said Maxwell, who joined the Limon company in 1965 and has headed it since 1978. "I try to allot about a third of the repertory to Limon, a third to Humphrey, and a third to new works."

She is willing to take chances on unproved or developing talents, and dance works by Jonathan Riedel, a current member of the company, and Adam Hougland, a former company member, are being danced at the Joyce Theater with great success. Riedel's "The Unsightful Nanny" and Hougland's "Phantasy Quintet" are having theirs New York premieres.

"Phantasy Quintet," danced to a score by Ralph Vaughan Williams, focuses on two lovers danced by Kimiye Corwin and Francisco Ruvalcaba who mix it up with five other dancers in a playful whirl of stylish movement. The Riedel number, with an amusing story line drawn from an Edward Gorey parody and music by Camille Saint-Saens, is pure comic delight with the choreographer himself dancing the role of the nanny.

"The Unsightful Nanny" is one of the few works in the repertory that requires anything like a set. Dancing on a bare stage is the norm for this traveling troupe that criss-crosses the nation from coast to coast, not by choice but by necessity.

"The travel restrictions are just horrendous now," said Maxwell. "We fly from engagement to engagement, and they've cut down on the number of pieces and sizes you can travel with. We aren't taking anything with sets right now. We're just traveling with costume boxes."

The major Limon work being presented is his unquestioned masterpiece, "The Moor's Pavane," which has been danced by several other dance companies since its premiere in 1949. It is an ingenious distillation of Shakespeare's "Othello" set to music by Henry Purcell and makes use of striking period costumes designed by Pauline Lawrence.

It focuses on the purloined handkerchief episode that arouses Othello's suspicions that his wife is unfaithful. Ruvalcaba, who is emerging as the company's leading male dancer, takes the role of Othello originally danced by the enormously charismatic Limon. Corwin is Desdemona, Raphael Boumaila is Iago, and his wife, Emilia, is danced by Roxane D'Orleans Juste.

Their gracefully crisp movements in telling the story by means of a courtly dance called the pavane are wonderfully accomplished and representative of the entire company's strong sense of musicality and form abetted by seemingly effortless technique. These attributes also are evident in the angular, stylized dancing required by the final episode of Doris Humphrey's "New Dance" to music by Wallingford Riegger.

Another amazing display of daring virtuoso dancing is offered in the recreation of Limon's "The Unsung," a showcase for the company's justly renowned male contingent. Danced by seven men in fringed, mustard-colored leggings, this ballet is Limon's tribute to native American heroes -- Pontiac, Tecumseh, Osceola, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Red Eagle and Black Hawk.

The Mexican-born Limon was reared in California and enrolled in a New York dance school run by Humphrey and Charles Weidman in 1930, performing the works of his teachers. In 1946, with Humphrey as artistic director, he founded the Limon Dance Company, which after his death was headed for five years by Ruth Currier, another notable modern dancer.

Under Carla Maxwell's direction, the Limon company has commissioned works by leading contemporary choreographers including Murray Louis, Alwin Nikolais, Anna Sololow, Susanne Linke and Jiri Kylian and reconstructed a number of modern dance works in danger of being lost. These includes Limon's renowned abstract paean to the indomitable nature of the human spirit, "Psalm," which is also being danced at the Joyce.

The company also sponsors the Limon Institute in New York that trains pre-professional and professional dancers in the Limon technique and conducts workshops and arranges dance company residencies on U.S. university campuses.

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