Limón Pursues His Visions

The New York Times 8 Oct 1972English

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I can remember when José Limón was the King, and we, his fervent subjects, tried to dance and to think about dance the way we thought he would have wanted us to. Not that he cared: he was occupied with his private vision of art and tired out from the hard work necessary to articulate it. When he talked to you, his eyes - solid black pits in the marvelous Indian skull - seemed fixed on a point either deep inside himself or miles behind you.

He was in those days - undoubtedly still is - crazy about Shakespeare, Bach, El Greco, Michelangelo, about art that was powerful and heavy and complex. Art that shook you up. He made his own works accordingly. In the chapter he wrote for The Modern Dance: Seven Statements of Belief, he said, "I try to compose works that are involved with man's basic tragedy and the grandeur of his spirit."

In many of Limón's dances, he cast himself as towering, but tormented figures: Judas Iscariot, Othello, Julian the Apostate, Adam, Emperor Jones. He plowed his way from innocence through acceptance of guilt to redemption and, quite often, death in a virile, yet brooding dance style. I remember a way he had of keeping his head lowered and slightly averted from his presumed focus; the gesture looked fastidious but at the same time suggested a bull goaded from all directions and wondering which way to charge.

I remember the Spanish line of his pulled-back arms, the bent-legged bourrée that he used so much. I remember especially the huge, slow paths his arms blazed through space; he seemed to be gathering in chunks of air or lifting himself up by pressing down against tremendous invisible resistance. Although his face and hands sometimes reached upward in the supplicating gestures suitable to the Judaeo-Christian hero, he seemed eternally locked into his own body. Every muscle strained against another. When you watched him, your eye traveled around and around the curving, circling designs he thrust himself into. It was like looking at the Michaelangelo figures Limón so admired: like them, he was massive, tense, yet appeared almost incapable of acting decisively.

I seldom remember him doing anything in these dramatic dances. Much of the time, he danced about how tragically impossible it was for him to follow any course of action. The dancing was turbid, magnificently thwarted, self-preoccupied.

The upper echelon of Limón's kingdom has always, of course, consisted of his company. During the mid-fifties, when I was an ardent disciple, the composition of the company influenced-and was influenced by-the kind of works he wanted to do. There was Lucas Hoving, whose light, spidery style made him an ideal antagonist for Limón: he could play saint to Limón's villain, villain to his saint with equal case. There was Pauline Koner - vivid, tiny but powerful, fast on her feet. There was a small core of women -interesting, defiantly unglamorous, chosen perhaps for a kind of lyrical delicacy. Two of the most prominent of these, Betty Jones and Ruth Currier, for all their technical strength, retained a charming gaucheness. They always looked vulnerable-maybe because they so frequently played victims of a male lust for power. (Only Koner looked ready to fight back.)

Then there was a fairly large group of men, say six, who usually functioned as a unit in the dramatic dances, portraying disciples, soldiers, slaves, visions. There was Limón's wife, the late Pauline Lawrence, who designed the costumes and kept the books and generally held things together. Most important, there was, until her death in 1958, Doris Humphrey, who - no longer dancing herself - made works for Limón's company and acted as its artistic adviser.

Limón had started his dance life with the Humphrey-Weidman crowd. He had learned the craft of choreography from Humphrey. Invaluable lessons, because Limón at his best reveals dramatic content through structure, rather than through emoting. I feel in many Limón works a searching for equilibrium and sanity in a world - inner or outer - that is unbalanced and shifting, and the forms of many of his major works express this. (This loss of proportion is another quality that allies him with the Mannerist art of El Greco, Michelangelo, late Shakespeare.)

The small courtly world of his Othello piece, The Moor's Pavane, is under constant threat: if one of the four dancers engaged in the carefully balanced quadrille pulls away, the whole structure may topple. Each time they separate into two couples-lago to rouse Othello's suspicions, Emilia to cozen Desdemona-you sense the impending peril which will indeed lead to first one character, then two, failing away from the dance and from life. Because of the tight, sociable patterns, a long diagonal that the tormented Othello makes with lago clinging crab-like to his back is alarming. You feel that they may just keep on going and never come back.

The heroine of La Malinche, by changing allegiance from her white conquistador lover to the embattled Indian Everyman, makes the scales of power dip and rise. The struggle is between the two men, but it is her weight added to first one and then the other that structures the dance. There Is a Time, based on the well-known catalogue of mutually exclusive opposites from "Ecclesiastes," is an idealistic hymn to balance and proportion ("A time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted," etc.).

Some of Limón's works stress odd viewpoints, disturbing angles. In The Traitor, we, the audience, often see Christ through Judas's eyes, become, like Judas, an outsider wanting to get closer to the divine presence. In this dance, we're shown a world of Renaissance perspective crumbling away. The disciples hold a white tablecloth, and Christ takes his accustomed place along the side of the Last Supper table. They spin the cloth, tilt it toward us; now he's at the head of the table, and we're looking down on the scene from a balcony.

Limón has had a number of failures. He can be light in a dry, strong way, as he proved in his 1955 all-male Scherzo, but he's not a successful funny man. He's produced some heavy-handed, botched comedies that have a naive, almost schoolboyish coarseness about them. (]'m thinking of Comedy or I, Odysseus). On occasion, he can be literal almost to the point of banality, or remorselessly didactic, as in Legend.

Over-literalness is perhaps one of the pitfalls inherent in Limón's essentially gestural approach to choreography. Even in many of his nondramatic dances, the movement expresses exuberance or despair or searching-not just by the way it is performed, but by the way it is designed; and all this meaningful movement can cramp into turgidity or stall the flow of dancing when it is attached to a complicated idea, as it was, for example, in his defunct Blue Roses, based on Tennessee Williams's play, The Glass Menagerie.

It was in 1958, when he made Missa Brevis, that Limón began to display an intoxication with numbers. Augmenting his company with members of Juilliard Dance Theatre, he created some massive group patterns, a kind of liquid architecture in which the center is constantly dissolving and reforming-an apt formal metaphor for the elusive healing power of faith. A Choreographic Offering, made in 1964 in memory of Doris Humphrey, is even more opulent-a baroque symphony of dance steps, more serene and balanced than earlier Limón works, in which Humphrey's breathing rhythms and tilting, arching phrases are set into huge wheeling circles, parades, spirals, criss-crossing flights.

By 1966, Limón was beginning to phase himself out of dancing, and he was also working with a new kind of company-younger dancers, many of them student of his from Juilliard. Louis Falco, Sally Stackhouse, Jennifer Muller, Carla Maxwell, Laura Glenn, Daniel Lewis, Clyde Morgan, Jennifer Scanlon - people like that. For them, he made an immense suite, The Winged, and it seemed a new and different kind of Limón work. Its solos, ducts, trios, group sections are only loosely linked to real and imaginary types of feathered life. Freed of all plot, of all necessity to unify, Limón produced a rich, soaring flood of dancing. Only occasionally did he become tricky, or make the audience overly aware of his compositional expertise.

Two of his most recent pieces, The Unsung and Dances for Isadora, continue this ripe, almost serene lyric vein. More austere than The Winged, they are suites of solo dances-the former for men, the latter for women. The Indian chieftains in The Unsung dance in silence. We know they are victims, but they are not playing the victims for us, as they might have in earlier Limón works. They are dancing about speed or strength or watchfulness or anger. The dance doesn't show us the doom of the Indians, but rather the vitality and beauty of a group of young men dancing. And this restraint, curiously, produces a more powerful and haunting intimation of death.

The solos in Dances for Isadora beautifully evoke the art of Isadora Duncan, and the work is only slightly marred by a bit of simplified biography that comes last-as if Limón had been attempting to contrast the purity of Duncan's artistic impulse with her tragic and ramshackle life.

José Limón is in his sixties, and he doesn't dance any more. But he keeps making dances: he's made two new ones for the City Center American Dance Marathon and his company is dancing in them through Wednesday. Choreographers working today tend to be cooler and lighter than Limón. They go in for less grandeur and far less optimism. They're not too concerned with expressing goals or resolving destinies-whether formal or metaphorical. Untouched by fashions in art, Limón continues to develop along his own lines. Within the dance he now seems like a king in exile from a foreign country. But a king, nonetheless.

When I wrote this, José Limón was dying. Everyone knew it, but no one could bear to think about it. Sometimes it's good to be able to write a eulogy when the person you're writing about is still around to read it.