Limon Dance Company - 2009
Posted 31 December 2008 - 02:15 PM
Recently, I came across a CD featuring two works by the composer Jon Magnussen titled Music for Limon Dances. In 1996 and 2002, the Limon company commissioned Magnussen to create new scores for two Limon dances, The Winged (1966) and Psalm (1967), which the company had devoted itself to reconstructing after the works had mostly fallen out of repertory. During Limon's lifetime, the company danced The Winged nearly in silence while Psalm featured a score by Eugene Lester (who Limon commissioned after an existing Stravinsky score proved beyond Limon's means.) During the reconstruction process, Limon artistic director Carla Maxwell decided that The Winged would benefit from having a score and Psalm would benefit from having a new score. In the event, the reconstructed The Winged, which had clocked in at about 50 minutes in length, now had a Magnussen score/running time of about 40 minutes. And Psalm, which was almost an hour (!) in length, now had a Magnussen score/running time of just over 30 minutes.
Putting aside any musical comments (I prefer the score for The Winged to the one for Psalm) for the moment, what intrigued me about this process (and Magnussen's very interesting liner notes) is this: Is any other heritage company, ballet or modern, performing quite the same "editing" function that the Limon followers are performing for Limon's late-period works?
Here is what I'm getting at. When Limon's great mentor Doris Humphrey died in 1958, a critical consensus developed and still holds fast (Tobi Tobias being a particular martinet in this regard) that the works Limon made during the post-Humphrey period (1958-1972) were generally too long. (The thinking being that, without Humphrey's critical eye, Limon didn't know how or what to cut.) But since Limon's death, there appears to be a trend among the Limon dancers who actually knew him and worked with him to provide the editing function that Humphrey could not provide and Limon would not provide. So, A Choreographic Offering (1964 running time: nearly an hour) is almost always seen today in suite form, The Winged has lost 10 minutes, Psalm has lost 30 minutes and The Unsung (1970), which originally had eight variations for men, now is featured mostly with 6 or 7.
I'm not criticizing this effort, which I actually think is the right one if the works are to survive. I'm just trying to think if any other heritage companies are engaged in quite the same process. The only things that come to mind are the Graham company's recent efforts with Clytaemnestra and Suzanne Farrell's efforts with Balanchine's Don Quixote. But even these efforts seem small in scale compared to what the Limon company is doing with new scores and fullout editing.
Posted 03 January 2009 - 04:47 PM
Posted 03 January 2009 - 05:12 PM
We curently have a thread discussing new Bolshoi policy regarding "restorations" which seems a propos.
Commissioning a new score to replace 50 minutes of silence (or near-silence) seems like an enormous change, and one which would impact both dancers and audience substantially. What were the original performances like I wonder? Does the Company have any plans to preserve the original version -- on video, if nowhere else?
During Limon's lifetime, the company danced The Winged nearly in silence
Is any other heritage company, ballet or modern, performing quite the same "editing" function that the Limon followers are performing for Limon's late-period works? [ ... ] I'm just trying to think if any other heritage companies are engaged in quite the same process. The only things that come to mind are the Graham company's recent efforts with Clytaemnestra and Suzanne Farrell's efforts with Balanchine's Don Quixote. But even these efforts seem small in scale compared to what the Limon company is doing with new scores and fullout editing.
It would be wonderful to hear people's thoughts on these issues -- even those who are not followers of Limon, Graham, etc. The issues are, as I said, enormous and might apply equally to Balanchine if, for example, there were no Balanchine Trust.
Posted 04 January 2009 - 04:34 PM
In terms of preserving The Winged in its "silent" state, Jon Magnussen's liner notes to the Music for Limon Dances CD states that he learned the dance by watching two films of it. (One was from the American Dance Festival and one was from the National Cathedral in Washington DC.) So, it will always exist in that form but, as Mindy Aloff has written, dances don't have theoretical realities -- they only have performance realities. That being the case, the "silent" version of The Winged is most likely a dead version given that the Magnussen version is now the performed version.
As to your other question regarding the ethical/philosophical issues related to tinkering with the creator's works, I have no easy answers. I don't believe that the followers of a particular choreographer should tinker pell-mell with the surviving works. But, on the other hand, I think the followers have a responsibility to maintain as much of the work as they can. If that means revamping and recontextualizing the works (without making them look like something else) so that the works can survive, then I'm all for it.
In Limon's case, he didn't want his works to become mausoleum pieces that were cast in concrete. (For the same reason, he never codified the technique during his lifetime because he wanted to leave the door open for further innovation within it.) In any event, he left no clear directions as to what to do with his dances after his death -- his will didn't even mention the dances!
What complicates this even further is when a choreographer keeps tinkering with a dance to reflect his or her shifting thoughts about a dance or to accomodate a particular variation to a particular dancer's talents. In instances like this, can you even say there is a "definitive" version? For example, in Limon's case, there were three separate reconstructions by three different dancers of Limon's Mazurkas at one point. (You might say that Jerome Robbins' Dances at a Gathering was the fourth reconstruction but that, as they say, is a different topic.) Maybe they were all the same but, if they weren't, what is the "definitive" version? (My understanding is that the Balanchine people have a particular problem with this given how George Balanchine tinkered endlessly with his dances.)
At the end of the day, I think Carla Maxwell made the right decisions regarding The Winged and Psalm. I don't think there's a 21st century audience for a 50 minute version of The Winged danced in silence any more than I think there's an audience for an hour-long version of Psalm. And, as she told the New York Times some years ago, it's not like she can call Jose Limon and ask him. She has to do what she thinks is best and see where it leads.
Posted 23 January 2009 - 06:28 PM
Dates and locations:
Lovinger Theatre @ Lehman College, The Bronx
01/23, 01/26-01/27, 01/29-01/30
Symphony Space, Manhattan
Goldstein Theatre @ Kingsborough Community College, Brooklyn
Posted 17 February 2009 - 05:32 PM
"The current economy has weakened everyone, but little attention has been given to the disastrous effect on arts organizations, particularly dance companies. While the award of the National Medal of Arts to the Jose Limon Dance Foundation last November was rightly a cause for celebration, it came when both private and public funding had been seriously constricted. Without your immediate support, we stand to lose what the National Endowment for the Arts cited as a repertory, "of an unparalleled breadth, creating unique experiences for audiences around the world."
As Scooby Doo would say: Ruh-Roh!
Posted 17 February 2009 - 05:45 PM
I want to thank you, miliosr, for being such a strong and passionate advocate for keeping Limon's company -- and therefore his work -- alive.
Posted 19 February 2009 - 06:39 PM
I hope they can weather the current storm more or less intact. The Limon repertory, style and technique will never become a dominant language in dance any more than Welsh or Flemish will become dominant languages around the world. But the dance world would be a poorer and less diverse place if Limon's work and ideas disappeared (just as the world would be a poorer place if unique languages like Welsh and Flemish disappeared.) Alas, I fear that events may result in the disappearance of a great many unique "languages" in the dance world.
Addendum: So, I've written out a check for the Jose Limon Dance Foundation in its hour of need. If it is to be my fate to live under the Balanchine hyperpower, then let it be with the knowledge that I did what I could to preserve alternatives.
Posted 23 February 2009 - 03:27 PM
Into My Heart's House (Clay Taliaferro, 2008)
The Traitor (Jose Limon, 1954)
Missa Brevis (Jose Limon, 1958)
I'm very excited to see Missa Brevis (w/ live music!) for the first time but disappointed that the company won't be bringing A Choreographic Offering in some form. I was so hoping to see the complete version for the first time. Failing that, I was hoping the company would perform the suite version on the Northrop Aud's bigger stage which would allow the dancers to spread out and let the work "breathe" better than it does when performed on smaller stages (which is where I've seen it in the past.) Alas, it would appear that the complete version of A Choreographic Offering and its reduction performed on a larger stage will remain as elusive as Bigfoot for me for now.
Full review to appear after the event . . .
Posted 10 March 2009 - 09:36 AM
1) The Limon company sent another fundraising request in which they noted they had only achieved 5% of their fundraising goal.
2) The freshman class at Boston Conservatory will be performing The Winged on April 17-18.
Posted 21 March 2009 - 02:01 PM
Carla Maxwell had many interesting things to say about Jose Limon's work but what really stuck with me the most was her aside that she had joined the company in 1965 (when she was 19.) It's amazing to think she's devoted 44 years of her life to maintaining Limon's work as a living thing. I don't think Ben Johnson was that far from the truth when, at the beginning of the chat, he said that she had almost single-handedly preserved Limon's work. Carla Maxwell would have none of it but I'm inclined to agree with Johnson. At the end of the day, Limon -- unlike most of his contemporaries -- hit the dance equivalent of the lottery in terms of having the right person in the right position of power at the moment of succession.
The Northrop Aud is a very large venue but I was happy to see such a full turnout for the performance. From where I sat on the main floor, it looked like the floor was 85-90% full. So, neither the modern dance nor the economy proved to be a deterrent to attendance.
The first dance on the bill was the newest. Former Limon company member and longtime Duke University dance professor Clay Taliaferro created Into My Heart's House in honor of Limon's centenary in 2008. (Full disclosure: I contributed money to the Limon company to help fund this piece.) Set to music by four very different composers (Johann Sebastian Bach, Valentin Silvestrov, Nick Bartsch and Joanne Metcalf), Into My Heart's House is a work for the full company. It is largely abstract but contains proto-narrative elements.
On the whole, I liked this work very much. (And, certainly, it is head and shoulders above other Limon company commissions I have seen this decade -- the bad [Susanne Linke's Extreme Beauty], the mediocre [Lar Lubovitch's Recordare] and the truly odd [Jonathan Reidel's The Undisputed Elephant].) Together, the individual variations and group sections serve as a primer on the beauty of Limon technique. There are many, many outstanding effects at work including the very first one -- the dancers come hurtling and sliding on stage until they have rested into position. Taliaferro shows many of the dancers off to their advantage, especially in the variations for Kristen Foote and Jonathan Fredrickson.
Alas, two things kept this work from becoming a great work (rather than a merely good one) for me. The use of four different composers kept the piece from building into something powerful (and gave me a bad flashback to Lar Lubovitch's tiresome Men's Stories, which employs a similar device) and, frankly, Bach left the other three in his dust. More importantly, the introduction of quasi-narrative elements at certain junctures left me baffled. As the narrative elements were almost willfully obscure, I found that they distracted from the forward moment of the dance and left me with the sensation that was good could have been better.
Still, I hope the Limon company keeps this dance in its active repertory and I hope Taliaferro keeps tweaking it. A critic once wrote about Jose Limon's The Winged that, "there is a good little dance lurking inside the infinities of this big . . . work." I feel much the same way about Into My Heart's House.
More to come . . .
Posted 21 March 2009 - 04:39 PM
The second work on the Northrop bill was Jose Limon's The Traitor (1954). Set to a score by Gunther Schuller, The Traitor retells the Jesus/Judas story in a series of episodes:
1) The Leader (Jesus), the Traitor (Judas) and the Followers (the Disciples) gather in secrecy,
2) The Traitor prepares to betray the Leader,
3) The Leader and the Followers celebrate the Last Supper, and
4) The Traitor betrays the Leader and then hangs himself.
Thursday night was my second live encounter with this work (the first being in Philadelphia in December 2007.) Like my first encounter with The Traitor, I left the Northrop with mixed feelings toward it. There is much to admire about this work, not the least of which is the extraordinary "painterliness" Limon brought to it. The way in which he deploys dancers in space to create a "living painting" is remarkable. And, as Alastair Macaulay has noted, Limon makes ingenious use of a simple white cloth to create a variety of stage effects, including the Leader's robe, the table for the Last Supper and (a detail I noticed for the first time in this performance) the bindings on the Leader's hands when the soldiers arrest him and lead him away.
All that being said, I confess that I admire The Traitor more than I actually like it. Like I did in Philadelphia, I found the abstract elements of the production more engaging than the narrative elements -- surely not Limon's intent. In addition, I get the same sense watching this work that I got when I saw Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. Is the dance actually giving me all of the information I need to comprehend the dance? Or did I bring preexisting knowledge to the dance which I used to fill in the blanks?? For instance, the Traitor's "solo" contains a moment when he counts the thirty pieces of silver. If I had no prior knowledge of the Jesus/Judas story, would this bit of stage business make any sense? I'm not sure it would.
Still, however ambivalent I may be about The Traitor, it was worth seeing again for Francisco Ruvalcaba's performance as the title character. Now the seniormost male dancer in the company, he is ably filling Limon's own parts in the repertory. None more so than this one -- his solo is riveting. He depicts Judas' agonizing struggle with the thought of betraying Jesus as if he were a junkie going through withdrawal. His entire body convulses in an agony that is painful -- yet mesmerizing -- to watch.
Still more to come . . .
Posted 21 March 2009 - 06:10 PM
Your post sent me off to Google, which turned up this 3+-minute segment from 1955. It depicts the moment of betrayal. I found it fascinating and powerful, though I'm not sure why. Some of the movement is so strange and compelling (for example, the Traitor runs in a circle around the Jesus figure, crouching, with his feet sliding rapidly across the floor). The YouTube poster suggests that this work was a response to the suspicion, fear and bretrayal that many in the arts experienced during the McCarthy period.
You raise an interesting point:
This sequence is not on the YouTube clip. Based on what I have seen, the situation and the emotional context seem both clear and universal. I realize that one would need to know the Gospel details to understand fully the counting of the 30 pieces But how is the counting performed? Isn't it clear that a payment has been made and that this is part of the betrayal?
Like I did in Philadelphia, I found the abstract elements of the production more engaging than the narrative elements -- surely not Limon's intent. In addition, I get the same sense watching this work that I got when I saw Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. Is the dance actually giving me all of the information I need to comprehend the dance? Or did I bring preexisting knowledge to the dance which I used to fill in the blanks?? For instance, the Traitor's "solo" contains a moment when he counts the thirty pieces of silver. If I had no prior knowledge of the Jesus/Judas story, would this bit of stage business make any sense? I'm not sure it would.
What WAS it about Llimon that led him to choreograph tormented roles like Othello and Judas for himself?
I am definitely going to order the Limon dvd with this, Moor's Pavane, and Emperor Jones.
Posted 22 March 2009 - 05:27 AM
The last work on the Northrop bill was Jose Limon's Missa Brevis (1958). Limon created Missa Brevis after he returned from a 1957 United States State Department-sponsored tour of Europe. As part of the tour, his company had travelled to Eastern Europe, including Poland. When they reached Poland, Limon and the other company members were stunned to see that Poland was still in ruins even though it had been 12 years since the conclusion of World War II. (As Carla Maxwell noted in her pre-performance chat, the Nazis and the Soviets had razed Warsaw to the ground.) What struck Limon about this was the resiliency of the Polish people in the face of widespread destruction and how they had not experienced any crisis in faith despite the hardships they faced. Limon resolved to make a dance about these "believers".
Before he returned to the United States, however, Limon -- who had long since experienced a crisis of faith with Catholicism -- attended Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in Seville, Spain. He found that Mass to be an "empty ritual" and decided to create a Mass of his own. He now had the raw elements for Missa Brevis at his disposal -- the community of believers on the one hand and the Outsider (himself) on the other.
For the music, Limon chose Zoltan Kodaly's Missa Brevis in Tempore Belli, which is set to organ and chorus. The dance itself requires 22 dancers. Since the Limon company is modest in size (fluctuating between 12-15 dancers at any given time) and is not attached to a specific theater (with an in-house orchestra or chorus), the company initiated the Missa Project several years ago to keep Missa Brevis in active repertory. As part of the Missa Project, the company (a) either partners with a college or university dance program to provide the additional dancers needed for the performance, or (b) recruits dancers from the local community.
In this instance, the Limon company recruited nine student dancers from the University of Minnesota Dance Department for the performance. Former Limon company member and current Limon stager Sarah Stackhouse taught Missa Brevis to 22 students in September and October 2008 and then returned in January to complete the staging for student performances in February 2009. Nine members of the student cast then joined the Limon company for a two week residency which culminated in the March 19th performance. See the students speak about their experience here:
For the performance, the company also partnered with the Oratorio Society of Minnesota (a 60-voice choral ensemble based in the Twin Cities) to sing Kodaly's work. Helen Jensen performed on the organ.
The narrative of Missa Brevis is quite simple. A community gathers to celebrate its faith while an Outsider (originally Limon but now danced by Francisco Ruvalcaba) attempts to join in but can never quite become part of the believing community.
I must say that I found Missa Brevis to be altogether the most beautiful dance work I have ever seen -- I was awed by it, basically. The individual variations are so, so beautiful but what really captured me were the group sections in which the 21 members of the community danced and breathed as one organism. From the opening grouped pose to the concluding one, the dancers were of one mind and body; perfectly conveying Limon's idea of a spiritual community with an unshakeable resolve. The nine student dancers fit in admirably with the Limon dancers and the uninformed viewer never would have known they weren't members of the company.
What really set Missa Brevis apart from other dances for me, however, was the central dilemma of the piece -- the Outsider wanting to be part of the spiritual community but unable to become a part of it. Being gay and having been raised Catholic, I saw some of myself in the Outsider. Just as the Outsider is drawn to the spiritual beauty of Limon's Mass but cannot join in, I am still drawn, as a matter of upbringing, to the Catholic Mass but can no longer partake due to the organized Church's dogma regarding homosexuality. I've never had that experience with a work of art before (seeing myself in a character) and I've certainly not had it with the cold formalism of George Balanchine or the contractions of Martha Graham or the blowsy camp of Mark Morris.
My only quibble with the performance is that the nine student dancers didn't get their own curtain call. So, let me give them a little shout-out by listing their names:
Lauren Baker, Mackenzie Beck-Esmay, Jeremy Bensussan, Bryana Fritz, Tristan Koepke, Scott Metille, Brent Radeke, Duncan Schultz and Chrysetta Stevens
If you are reading this guys and gals -- great job!
My goal now is to see the complete Choreographic Offering on the same bill as Missa Brevis. Truly, I could die happy if I were to see that. But, until then . . .
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