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Limon Dance Company

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I returned yesterday from my yearly Deadhead-like pilgrimage to see the Limon Dance Company. This year I picked their December 6-8 residency at the Zellerbach Theatre on the University of Pennsylvania campus. The Penn stand was the company's last series of performances prior to the year of anniversaries in 2008 -- the centenary of Jose Limon's birth, Carla Maxwell's 30th year as artistic director and senior dancer Roxane D'Orleans Juste's 25th year with the company.

While I greatly admire the way Carla Maxwell has allowed the company to branch out from its core Limon and Doris Humphrey repertory by programming compatible works by other choreographers, I was happy to see the spotlight turned squarely on Limon on the eve of his centenary. The repertory for all four performances consisted of Suite from a Choreographic Offering, The Traitor and The Moor's Pavane.

Suite from A Choreographic Offering (1964)

This suite of dances from the original, much-longer A Choreographic Offering is Limon's tribute to his mentor (and original company artistic director), Doris Humphrey. Set to Bach's A Musical Offering, this dances contains "variations, paraphrases and motifs" from 14 dances Humphrey made for either the Humphrey-Weidman company or its successor company, the Jose Limon Dance Company. Limon created this work after he experienced an artistic dead stretch between 1959-1963 and the work heralded a major upswing in his creative fortunes until he died in 1972.

The work itself consists of an opening dance for thirteen, continues with a series of solos, duets and quintets and concludes with a final dance for thirteen. The dance is completely abstract and tells no story other than, perhaps, the story of the Limon technique as Humphrey conceived it, Limon developed it and the followers conserved and extended it further.

I last saw this work in 2005 and thought it was quite the most lovely thing I had ever seen. Seeing it again, I was struck once again by its formal beauty and the almost classical feel of the piece. As for the dancers who brought it so vividly to life, I was especially taken by Ryoko Kudo and her formidable strength in the second solo and Kathryn Alter and Daniel Fetecua-Soto and their high spirits and quicksilver speed in the duet.

I could go on and on about this work but I'll leave the final word to a young man of college age who I overheard say the following about this work during the first intermission on the first night: "If I joined a company, it would be this one, because the movement is just so beautiful."

Agreed, young man, agreed.

The Traitor (1954)

The second piece on each program was this revival of a work that (I believe) has not been seen in almost three decades.

In all honesty, I approached this work with some hesitancy. It appears on the Three Modern Dance Classics DVD and I have never found it particularly engaging or even intelligible. Seeing it onstage for the first time, however, made me realize how badly the televised version of this dance contained on Three Modern Dance Classics fails to convey Limon's true spatial and theatrical intentions. In performance, the dramatic events of the piece become immediately intelligible and, freed from the obstacle of close-ups and cuts, Limon's harmonious spatial design is restored.

The Traitor is Limon's retelling of the Biblical relationship between Jesus and Judas. Francisco Ruvalcaba, now the senior-most male dancer in the company, was striking as the Judas figure and revealed himself to be a powerful dramatic dancer in the mode of Limon himself. Jonathan Fredrickson, in his second season with the company, essayed the Jesus part and he was reasonably effective in it. The biggest limitation for him at this point is his youth. With time, he will grow into the part and the drama of his dancing will grow in amplitude.

What struck me the most about this dance, though, was how much it reminded me of El Greco's late-period paintings. Limon very famously admired El Greco and, to me, the influence was readily apparent in this work. Watching The Traitor is like watching an El Greco canvas spring to life before your eyes. The contorted bodies, the ecstatic expressions, the color combinations of the costumes, even the set which evokes Old Jerusalem -- they all point toward the power and majesty that was El Greco during his final phase.

El Greco is my favorite painter so I was very pleased to see a dance work that appeared to pay homage to him. That being said, I will be the first one to admit that, if you don't like El Greco (and not everyone does), then you won't like The Traitor. The very Expressive style of both is either a turn-on or a turn-off and I doubt very much that there will be much middle ground to be had.

The Moor's Pavane (1949)

My previous encounter with this work occurred in January of 2006. At that time, I was of mixed minds about the production. While I thought the work itself was as sturdy as it had ever been, I couldn't help thinking that the company lacked the right dancers to bring the work to life fully. My encounter with the dance left me wondering whether modern/postmodern/contemporary dance was still capable of producing the larger-than-life personalities which this work demands.

The company presented two casts over the course of four performances and I must say I was much happier with both of these casts than I was with the one I saw in 2006. Francisco Ruvalcaba and Raphael Boumaila split duties as The Moor (Othello). Of the two, I preferred Ruvalcaba if for no other reason than he was a better physical match to Iago (Roel Seeber, in all four performances) than Boumaila was. Seeber is very tall and I felt he overdominated the smaller Boumaila in that cast. Ruvalcaba and Seeber are much more evenly-matched in height so their interactions with one another seemed more like a contest of equals.

Seeber was new to the part and, at first, I wondered how he would fare as The Moor's Friend given his natural jolly stage personality. But he rose to the occasion as he was very sinister throughout the piece. Ryoko Kudo, new to the role of Emilia when I saw the work last (and much-improved), matched Seeber all-the-way and their bizarre relationship was spellbinding to behold.

One thing that really caught my attention this time was the opening tableaux of the four dancers in the pavane. The dimmed lighting created an ethereal effect where the four dancers in burgundy (The Moor), white (The Moor's Wife), mustard (The Moor's Friend) and orange (The Friend's Wife) resemble nothing so much as figures from an Eastern Orthodox icon and glow like figures in one. It is a powerful moment and, at one of the performances, the college student behind me gasped.

So, there you have your 2007 status report on the Limon Dance Company. I had a splendid time but then I freely admit I'm biased in their favor so feel free take this review as a serious review or as a fan letter. See you in 2008 with another review!

P.S. To the distinguished-looking older gentleman I was speaking with during the first intermission on Saturday night: If you read this, thanks for commiserating with me about the squatter in my seat. I thought she would never leave!

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