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Limon Dance Company

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I attended the Limon Dance Company's February 9-10 performances at the Baryshnikov Arts Center (BAC) in New York. The performances were in celebration of what would have been Anna Sokolow's one-hundredth birthday this year. (One hundred years to the night on February 9th!) The program consisted of the Limon company's 2008 revival of Sokolow's Rooms (1955) and 2009 revival of Jose Limon's There Is a Time (1956).

Rooms began each performance and is Sokolow's meditation on the theme of urban alienation. Set to a jazz score by Kenyon Hopkins (played live both nights by musicians from the Manhattan School of Music Jazz Ensemble), Rooms features eight dancers. Of its many striking aspects, perhaps the most impressive is the scenic design. The work begins with eight chairs; each of which is set in a cube of bright light. The chairs are not in rows but are spread out equidistant from one another on the stage (in this case, the 4th floor studio at BAC.) Each dancer occupies a chair and, as the performance begins, the dancers engage in various movement phrases -- standing, stretching their legs in front of themselves, draping themselves perpendicularly across the chair, etc. The dancers are never in synch with one another, though -- they go about their movements with no awareness of each other and never interact with one another.

The opening section ("Alone") is followed in succession by five solos ("A Dream," "Escape," "Going," "Panic," and "The End?"), one dance for three men and three women ("Desire") and one dance for three women ("Daydream"). Each of the following sections reiterates Sokolow's theme of alienation. Finally, the dancers reunite to repeat themes from their individual sections and from the opening section but, again, they are never aware of each other and are out-of-synch with one another. The dance concludes as it began -- the dancers are alone and isolated on their chairs.

As I wrote earlier in this review, the stage design of Rooms is its greatest virtue. By rearranging the chairs and their location in the performance space, Sokolow could constantly reinvent the spacial design of the dance. The nature of the BAC studio (no wings) only added to the atmosphere and created a claustrophobic effect which was ideal for this work and its theme. The Kenyon Hopkins score fit the dance perfectly and the Manhattan School of Music Jazz Ensemble played fluently. (What a pleasure to hear live music at a modern dance performance!)

The various vignettes are well-made and the Limon dancers captured the style of a piece which, to be honest, is not the norm for them. I was especially struck by Kristen Foote in "A Dream" (highly reminiscent of Blanche Dubois and the delusional protagonist of June Christy's "Something Cool"), Dante Puleio in "Going" (as an amped-up "speed freak") and Kathryn Alter in "The End?" (as a disturbed young woman who prefigures Catherine Deneuve's character in Repulsion.)

As dance movement, I would be hard-pressed to categorize Rooms. It does not utilize Limon technique, with its rise and fall of the torso. Nor does it employ the gut-sprung Graham technique (from whose company Sokolow aesthetically sprung.) If Rooms bears a resemblance to anything, it is (unintentionally, I'm sure) to the hyper-kinetic mime of Charles Weidman. It also predicted the Judson Theater choreographers and their use of everyday movement (although Sokolow's use of same was/is hyper-stylized while theirs was not.)

I was quite taken with Rooms, which I had not seen before. If I have a criticism of it, it would be more for what it portends of Sokolow's repertory as a whole and its chances of survival. One writer described Sokolow's work as, "overwhelmingly depressed, dark, alienated, sometimes violent, angry and unresolved." I cannot comment on whether or not this is true (Rooms being the only Sokolow work I have ever seen) but, if all of Sokolow's works are like Rooms, I can see why her repertory is so rarely performed today. The unceasingly bleak tone of Rooms, spread across an entire repertory, carries within it the seeds of its own destruction -- there simply aren't enough people who would want to sit through an entire bill of works like this.

Rooms on a repertory bill with works by other choreographers, however, is another story and definitely deserves the accolades it has received as a masterpiece of the modern dance.

Up next: Limon's There Is a Time!

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The second and concluding work on the bill was a revival of Limon's There Is a Time. Staged by principal dancer and associate artistic director Roxane D'Orleans Juste, There Is a Time is Limon's dance evocation of text from Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes ("To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven"). In all respects, it is the anti-Rooms. Whereas Sokolow explored a feeling of purposeless in modern life, Limon celebrated the grandeur of the human spirit despite its hardships.

I've had bad luck with There Is a Time in the past. In the Fall of 2008, I saw Chicago's Luna Negra Dance Theater perform this in Madison but I was so sick on the night that I couldn't get the full measure of it. In the Summer of 2009, I saw Luna Negra perform this again at the Chicago Dancing Festival but, this time, they performed an excerpted version which hardly did justice to the piece. My bad luck held true on Wednesday night as a blizzard engulfed New York. But, luckily, the show went on and I got to see this work for the second consecutive night.

Negative(s) first: While the studio at BAC worked like a charm for Rooms, I thought it worked against There Is a Time. This work, like Limon's Missa Brevis, A Choreographic Offering and The Winged, cries out for the floor-devouring space of a larger theater. The BAC studio, unfortunately, lent a pinched quality to the dance. At the Tuesday night show, the dancers looked like they were taking the measure of the space (again, no wings and only a black screen in the back for changeovers) and, as a result, their dancing had a tentative quality to it. (This improved markedly in the next night's show.)

The space also curtailed some of Limon's stage effects, including the beautiful sequence where the opening circle of 11 dancers slowly unwinds itself and 10 of the 11 dancers -- arm-in-arm -- slowly move off stage. In the cramped confines of the BAC studio, the dancers unspooled briefly and then walked single file along a wall to the screen. The effect just wasn't the same.

As for the actual dance, I've noted elsewhere on this site that my prior encounters with it did not always convince me that the various episodes sandwiched between the opening and concluding full company segments showed me what the program notes were telling me they were showing me. Having seen the complete There Is a Time performed by the company which has the fullest grasp of the Limon technique and style, I am now more inclined to say that the different episodes do show what Limon wanted them to. I'm not entirely convinced that this is the case but, for the first time, I didn't think the program notes were doing the heavy lifting.

Of the individual vignettes, I found the strongest to be "A time to keep silence, and a time to speak" with Kathryn Alter and Jonathan Fredrickson, and "A time to hate, a time of war" (again with Alter). The "silence/speak" segment does not employ any of Norman Dello Joio's score. Instead, it alternated between silence (when Alter danced) and loud, sustained clapping by the remaining 9 company members (when Fredrickson danced) who stood alongside one of the studio walls. This is one time when the confines of the BAC studio worked to the dance's favor. The clapping in unison by the Limon dancers (which occurred offstage in the Luna Negra production) reverberated throughout the studio and created a breathtaking effect as Fredrickson danced.

Fredrickson is a powerful and charismatic dancer and his dancing in "A time to speak" was some of the most powerful I have ever seen a member of this company give. (And, if you don't believe me, I'll defer to Mr. Baryshnikov. He was in attendance at Wednesday night's performance and he leaned forward with great interest every time Fredrickson appeared.) Alter was marvelous in both of the segments in which she appeared although I worry that her repertory -- a suicidal wreck in Rooms and a crazed harridan in There Is a Time -- may pigeonhole her as the Ed Watson of the modern dance.

I enjoyed seeing Limon's company perform There Is a Time and I thought the staging was very strong. I still wouldn't consider this one of my favorite Limon pieces but the segments I love (the opening and closing circles, "A time to speak") I really love.

Up next: Overall impressions!

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All very interesting, miliosr, and many pieces I'd never heard of. I realize I've never seen one of Sokolow's pieces, but I did have a pianist friend who worked with her for some years in either the late 70s or early 80s, and did describe the bleakness of the works as you do. He was a real believer in her work. I do remember meeting her very briefly way back in 1971, with a dancer-friend just right on the street, and she was a lovely lady.

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Overall impressions:

1) The Limon company looked strong although it's practically a new company from the one that existed in the "Noughties". The two seniormost dancers -- Roxane D'Orleans Juste and Francisco Ruvalcaba -- are both out on leave. (He is out with a knee injury -- he was walking around with a cane at the Wednesday night performance.) Longtime company members (since 2001) Kurt Douglas and Ryoko Kudo have both left Limon in the last year. That leaves Raphael Boumaila, Kristen Foote and Kathryn Alter as members with five years of experience or more. The remaining 8 company members have only been there for four years or less.

2) The way artistic director Carla Maxwell programmed this evening was, to me, the model for how a heritage company should program its performances. Programming contrasting works by different choreographers keeps the company out of that "one choreographer" rut (where all of the works end up being too similar in style and tone.) This type of programming also has the added benefit of keeping alive works like Rooms which, in the absence of a regularly functioning Sokolow company, would die off.

3) Seeing the Limon company perform There Is a Time as Limon intended it to be seen (with the correct technique and in the correct style) only reinforced my belief of how feckless Merce Cunningham's successors are being in disbanding his company. Just comparing the Limon company's performances of There Is a Time to Luna Negra's performances of the same work made me realize that, as fine as the Luna Negra performances were, the Limon dancers just have these works in their bones. It cemented my feeling that other modern dance companies or ballet companies will never be able to replicate Cunningham's works as they should be seen.

4) I went to the Museum of Modern Art on Wednesday morning and saw Matisse's La Danse (the preliminary version). The circle of dancers in the painting (with their upper torsos perpendicular to their lower torsos) is almost exactly the same as the circle of dancers in the opening and closing segments of Limon's There Is a Time. Was Limon aware of the Matisse painting when he made his dance? The accompanying text to the painting said that Nelson Rockefeller didn't donate the painting to MOMA until 1963. And yet I find it impossible to believe that Limon hadn't seen it before then.

5) Baryshnikov is looking good!

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Claudia La Rocco, in the Times review, writes:

The full-bodied, heroic lines of Limón’s choreography, always either swooning into or regally resisting gravity, lend themselves to the sort of archetypes that today seem stereotypes. So, too, his flowing, interlocking patterns, often collapsing and expanding around circular structures.
La Rocco certainly has some of Limon's recurring dance vocabulary down pat. (Even I remember the "circular structures.") But is it fair to call these patterns "stereotypes," without explain what you mean? Most choreographers repeat themselves.
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Tobi Tobias weighs in (belatedly):


This is a very thoughtful and balanced review from someone who has been watching and reviewing the company for a long time.

I like how she gives a little shout-out to the company's continued existence lo these many years after Limon's death ("boasting an unbroken existence since Limon's death") -- something the Graham company wasn't able to do. Meow!

I also like how perceptive her (gentle) criticism of the dancing is:

The current Limon dancers are undeniably experts in softness, sensitivity, fluency, and accuracy of detail. What they need most just now is a walloping dose of impetuousness; they are too pleasant and too neat.

Tobias isn't the first person to pick up on this trend (Deborah Jowitt has written about it as well.) Nevertheless, the current company does seem (at times) more "balletic" than the original company. That company was much more rough-hewn -- partly due to technical limitations but partly due to design. How do you get that back without sacrificing the rise in technical standards since the 1940s?

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