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Masters of Ceremony: The Limón Company Dances the Divine

The best thing about the Limón Dance Company is that it takes itself and its mission seriously. This is, of course, also potentially the worst thing. The 72-year-old troupe, founded in Manhattan by the Mexican-American José Limón and his mentor/colleague Doris Humphrey,  brings to the Joyce a program heavy on spirituality; it has always engaged serious themes, but this season the focus of the choreography turns to God and to whatever formulations Native American leaders may have held in lieu of monotheism.

Mark Willis in “The Unsung”

The company’s publicity says its primary concern is “community.” In the spare opening work, Limón’s 1970 male septet The Unsung, bare-chested men in buckskin trousers create rhythms with their bare feet. There’s no musical accompaniment; the weight of the occasion is all on the performers, and they rise to it marvelously, as an ensemble and in solo sections. What we see is minimalism inflected with the sacred, as the dancers, each of whom is identified in the program with the name of a famous chief from an American tribe, move in concert, apparently preparing for battle or celebrating victory.

With very simple theatrical tools — just the occasional change in the hue or level of light — the work projects levels of threat to these warriors’ way of life.  Performers focus on the ground or on the sky; even when they’re onstage together, their attention is less on one another than on some larger concern. It is clear that they are hunted, and probably doomed.

“The Unsung,” choreographed by José Limón

The seven men are all strong performers. I find it hard to tear my eyes from Jesse Obremski, one of the troupe’s youngest members, whose strength, clarity, and focus radiate from a secure central place. But the others — Mark Willis, David Glista, Terrence D.M. Diable, Alex McBride, Malik Williams and Tanner Myles Huseman — also capture the commitment of the native leaders.

The Body Is a House Without Walls, a new work for six women by the company’s current artistic director, Colin Connor, also seems to keep its focus on the otherworldly. After cutting one person out of a red dress, the group, costumed by Elysia Roscoe in floaty white garments, gambols around to Glenn Gould’s recording of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #32. The trouble here is that the Beethoven is challenging and complex; at one point I find myself tuning out the dancing to concentrate on the music. But by the end of The Body, I am wondering if we are not in purgatory. And sure enough, a program note tells us that the piece was inspired by the behavior of elephants toward their dead.  Visible references are slight, but the spaced-out relationships imply a certain placelessness.

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The two-hour program’s somber nature was interrupted opening night by Rosie Herrera’s Querida Herida. A trifle for two frantic women (three if you count the sweet gymnast, Angela Falk, who vamps during a costume change) and several dresses, it relies on gimmicky outfits by Bradon McDonald to communicate the relationship between Jacqueline Bulnes and Brenna Monroe-Cook. One unzips portions of the other’s black dress to reveal dazzling red-sequined internal organs; the other pulls a spiral zipper that deconstructs an entire garment, leaving its wearer in nude-toned undies. All good fun, but then they disappear and return in golden dresses. The central dynamic between the two leading women is never entirely clear.

José Limón’s “Missa Brevis”

Limón’s sixty-year-old Missa Brevis, to a fuzzy recording of Zoltán Kodály’s choral score, also claims to be a tribute to community, but in fact aims its glorious ensemble dancing primarily at heaven. Men in casual clothing and women in simple knee-length dresses perform the various parts of the Catholic mass, the company expanded to nineteen by visiting artists from Canada and Venezuela.

At thirty-four minutes Missa is not so brevis, and its organizing principle, focusing on a man (Mark Willis) redeemed by his participation in the group, gets lost in the general pageantry, but when it was new, during the Eisenhower administration, it moved the company into the front ranks of American dance, a spot it deserved then, and deserves now.

“Missa Brevis”

Limón Dance Company
Joyce Theater
175 Eighth Avenue
212-242-0800
joyce.org
Through May 13

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Fall Arts: The Merce Cunningham Company Dances to an End

A choreographer dies; the work lives on. Or does it? And if the artist in question has created and maintained a company devoted to the performance of his/her dances, what then? In the final decades of the 20th century, we lost José Limón, George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Alwin Nikolais, and, in 2009, Merce Cunningham. A while before his death at 90, Cunningham made a sobering decision. On December 31, 2011, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company ends the second year of its Legacy Tour, gives its final performance, and ceases to exist.

Cunningham must have considered how his late contemporaries had handled their heritages and decided against following their examples. The Limón and Graham companies have soldiered on—keeping classics of the repertory polished, commissioning new works that, with luck, complement those of the master, and developing strategies to attract those too young to have seen the companies when their founders were alive. Nikolais’s works have a home in Salt Lake City’s Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, a separate adjunct to the organization’s contemporary repertory.

Balanchine’s New York City Ballet has always been to some degree a repertory company, although his work predominates. A large, well-supported establishment, NYCB commissions gifted choreographers who work with the classical vocabulary, but it too must come up with attention-getting projects (consider Peter Martins’s Ocean’s Kingdom to the first-ever ballet score by Sir Paul McCartney, premiering September 22).

It’s not surprising that Merce Cunningham didn’t envision a future for his company without him. As an artist, he appeared to think in the present tense, to live in the moment. Like the philosopher Heraclitus, he clearly believed that you couldn’t step into the same stream twice. Along with his longtime musical director and partner, John Cage, he embraced the riskiness of chance procedures in composition, and unforeseen intersections of dance, music, and décor in performance. He wanted dancing to mean itself or to mean whatever the spectator wanted it to. He could be slightly entrancingly enigmatic—once writing, for instance, that “the body shooting into space is not an idea of man’s freedom, but is the body shooting into space. And that very action … is man’s freedom.” He referred to climaxes in choreography as “privileged moments” and did his best to avoid them.

Cunningham’s dances will live on, licensed to other organizations and rehearsed by those well-versed in the repertory and the style. But as of January 1, 2012, we will not have the last group of superb dancers that he picked and groomed and built works on. It could break your heart. His decision, nonetheless, was a brave and understandable one. He leaves us with the memory of an ensemble at its peak, of his dances as he loved to see them.

The present company has been touring strenuously during its allotted two years. In 2011 alone, the 14 dancers have been applauded in London, Paris, Berlin, Jerusalem, Mexico City, and elsewhere abroad, as well as in American cities and university towns. They’ve gradually been saying goodbye to the repertory, even as they greet it in every theater with full fervor.

New York has two chances before the end of the year to feast on Cunningham’s work: six dances and four performances during the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, and the final hurrah—six Events performed over three days on three stages at the Park Avenue Armory—ending on New Year’s Eve. Tears for champagne.

December 7–10,
BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House,
30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, bam.org;

December 29–31,
Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue,
armoryonpark.org

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Kyle Abraham, Layard Thompson, and the Limón Company Explore Their Histories

José Limón was born in 1908, and what’s remarkable about this centennial is that, although he died in 1972, his company and his teachings are still thriving. The José Limón Dance Foundation was honored this year with a National Medal of Arts for Lifetime Achievement. Carla Maxwell, who accepted the medal in a White House ceremony, has lived a good part of her own life in Limón’s creative orbit—first as a dancer and, for the past 30 years, the organization’s artistic director.

A company that has lost its main sources of choreography (in this case, not only Limón but his mentor Doris Humphrey) has the difficult mission of funding or commissioning works that will complement the existing repertory but not clash with it. In addition to presenting three major Limón works—The Moor’s Pavane, a revival of The Traitor (1954), and the abridged version of A Choreographic Offering—the company chose to open its Joyce season with a premiere by Clay Taliaferro and a revival of Anna Sokolow’s magisterial 1955 Rooms. A brave move.

Taliaferro was a leading dancer in the Limón repertory for a number of years, and he dedicated his Into My Heart’s House to Ruth Currier, a founding member of the company and, for a time, its artistic director. He understands the Humphrey-Limón vocabulary, with its powerful interplay between attraction to the earth and the rebound from it. Falling and recovering formed the basis of Humphrey’s profoundly humanistic vision of dancing. Anyone who has ever performed or studied the movement style relishes that breath-suspended moment before a sinking or plunging generates a new one. Taliaferro also has a grasp of Limón’s interest in architectural groupings and three-dimensional, sculpture-in-motion designs.

This means that there are many beautiful moments in this flood of dancing—sometimes overlapping or happening simultaneously. At one point near the end, the nine dancers are all curling and springing in individual patterns before they join again in unison, and they look as if they’re at play in celestial fields. Taliaferro, however, isn’t simply interested in presenting ecstatic dancing. Struggle is involved. And here’s where his grasp on his idea loosens. The personal drama that runs through Into My Heart’s House is unclear and sometimes clumsily executed. He uses very diverse pieces of music (including a mournful song in Russian by Valentin Silvestrov and selections by Nik Bartsch and Joanne Metcalf) to signal mood changes, which are abetted by Carol Mullins’s subtly dramatic lighting. J.S. Bach’s exalted music recurs to signal I’m not sure what. Spiritual awakening, maybe.

There’s an arresting opening, in which the dancers rush in, with one, Katie Diamond, almost aggressive, and immediately Raphaël Boumaïla begins to sink slowly backward to the floor. The others look at him and go. He and another man (Ashley Lindsay), who’s somehow connected to him, have problems that rarely concern the rest of this society. Lindsay wants to jump around, and the music keeps cutting out. In a later sequence, Lindsay dances confidently and intently in a corner, while Boumaïla fiddles around, trying out gestures (maybe those that Lindsay is executing), as if trying to remember them or guess them. This goes on for a long time and is neither well staged nor convincingly performed. When at the end of this duet, Boumaïla goes up to Lindsay and circles his arms as if to embrace him, Lindsay slips away. I think this may be one of those hard-to-show ideas: a living dancer as an aspect of another. There’s also a mysterious searching solo for Kathryn Alter and a passage in which Ruping Wang is carried on aloft as if on a pall. But the resonance of whatever drama Taliaferro is unfolding is blurred—and adrift in the rest of the dancing.

In Sokolow’s Rooms, fastidiously mounted and coached by Jim May, nothing is blurred. The only flaw in a gripping performance opening night was the overamping of Kenyon Hopkins’s fine jazz score; the too-blaring horn takes the city-streets ambiance to an ear-splitting level and counters the isolation of Sokolow’s characters. These people sit in lonely rooms, defined by chairs set in squares of light (lighting design by Joshua Rose). What Sokolow shows us so simply and so powerfully are their dreams and fears. There is nothing of Limon’s expansive lyricism here. These individuals are taut-bodied, narrow, unable to yield. They rise from their chairs as if in response to a hoped-for voice and sit back down. They paddle their feet in the air or slide them back and forth relentlessly. Every movement stems from a gesture, a silent outcry. Alone together, they lie across their chairs, drop their hands to the floor with a thud, and raise them like inadequate wings before dropping them again. The sound has the force of a muffled scream.

We see men and women suffering nightmares (Boumaïla) or reaching for a way out of loneliness, perhaps for a dream lover (the eloquent Roxane D’Orleans Juste). Hopkins must have collaborated closely with Sokolow, for every pause, every burst of music is integral to the choreography. In one of the most stunning solos, “Going,” a man is literally goaded by a passage of drumbeats; they seem to be under his skin like red ants, driving him. He runs without getting anywhere; at the end, collapsed in exhaustion, he’s still snapping his fingers (a terrific performance by Francisco Ruvalcaba). In “Panic,” Daniel Fetecua Soto can’t run enough to get away from his demons. And in the final solo, fragile Wang’s wriggling fingers seem to be talking to her; standing on her chair, she trembles on the verge of suicide, as the others re-enter and take their places in a solitude that seems unending.

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I wonder if Limón happened to see Rooms back in the1950s. His visions were never this grim, but the strength, integrity, and human insights of the choreography would surely have impressed and moved him.


I first saw Kyle Abraham’s work when he was getting his MFA at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He’s come great distances since then, finding his voice as a performer-choreographer and investigating his identity as a gay African-American male. A solo, Dream Lockdown, that he performed on one of DanceNOW’s October programs, confirmed his talents. In that, alternately fluid and jerky, he seemed to be in a simultaneous process of becoming and falling apart. In his new solo, Brick, at DTW, he channels stylistic aspects of two sources: Kara Walker’s cut-out-silhouette scenes and work by the 17th-century Japanese artist Hishikawa Moronobu. At first, back to us, wearing a very bouffant Afro wig and a hoodie over full black pants, he strikes positions against a white paneled backdrop that allude to Walker’s images of violence against African Americans; an associate traces the outline of this living silhouette (later shapes of white light fill those outlines). When Abraham sheds the wig (more of them rise on wires as décor), he reveals black body paint and a gleaming corselet. Against a background of twin slides showing what I took to be a Japanese river town in the rain, his wonderfully expressive body sometimes suggests Moronobu’s influence in its settled clarity, its slow gestures, and the way his hands flick the space around him. Yet his rippling arms, hips, and shoulders also reach back to Africa and forward to hip-hop. At one point, when rap breaks out in the collage score, his undulations toughen until he’s punching the air.

Abraham’s The Dripping Kind began as an installation, and it retains a sculptural calm—simple but vibrant in space. Dancers enter one by one in silence at a leisurely pace and assume a position in profile—standing on tiptoe, one foot forward, body curved over, arms hanging. Each of them (Jenn Freeman, Chelamar Bernard, Maureen Damaso, Nicole Mannarino, Sumaya Jackson, Evan Copeland, Meghan Merrill) is bent to a different degree, as if Abaham wanted to depict the stages of melting. In various combinations, they stagger forward, getting closer and closer to the ground, roll one way and then the other, rise and retreat to their poses. They do this for quite a while, and it’s always interesting. Another repeated and varied action reinforces the strangely poignant tone. Mannarino braces herself in a pushup position, and the others take turns entering and crawling under the bridge of her body; when her visitor lies supine, she lowers herself onto him or her and rests there for a short while. Then she pushes up again, and the person leaves. Sometimes she puts these guests’ arms around her, or they embrace her. Merrill, her last “lover,” stays the longest, and after some gentle, but strong passages of movement by the group, Merrill places Mannarino in the same half-melting embrace of empty air that Mannarino earlier molded her into, then walks away, leaving her friend alone on the darkening stage. The music’s by Arvo Pärt, Thomas Brinkmann, and Gabriela Montero, and Abby Geartner joins the dance at some point.

Layard Thompson, who shares the program with Abraham, is also into exploring identity, which he does with the uninhibited gusto of a wild child and the calculation of a savvy artist. The title of his Cup… puC……K……Ohhhh, Beauty, full, vessel: is as elaborately (somewhat maddeningly) playful as the 45-minute work. Like his acknowledged mentor, Deborah Hay, he can be both impish and primal. He begins by making his way down an aisle, wearing an amazing, full-skirted dress made of take-out coffee cups and smaller cardboard lids. Machine Dazzle collaborated on the mic’d outfit, which clanks as he crawls and swings along. His lower body is confined in clear plastic trash bags, so he appears, unnervingly, to be legless.

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The first part of the piece is an elaborate unveiling in more ways than one. Thompson emerges from the dress, then finds many ways to get out of the many bags whose red ties hang around his neck like coral jewelry. All the while, he howls and hoots and talks gibberish, eventually ripping his way through the last sacks, even as he plays with their possibilities (suffocation? No, maybe not). His lean, fit body clad only in briefs, he explores those white cotton undergarments as if he both knew and refused their function (aren’t I the naughty boy?). At one point in their destruction, a long strip of fabric passes between his legs and around his neck, uncomfortably sharing his crotch with his now exposed genitals. Eventually, his consonantless gabble reveals what’s he’s struggling to articulate: “Here is my handle, here is my spout. . . .” And indeed quite a lot of pouring out does go on. On Thompson’s agenda are peeing while resting face down on the floor, climbing into a plastic trash can and showering off with a jumbo bottle of water, putting on several items of clean underwear in unlikely ways, loping like a gorilla, trying some makeshift percussion, standing on the inverted trash can (fortunately emptied into a pot) with a paper bag over his head, crawling under a long paper-cup coverlet and emerging as a sort frilled lizard with a large ruff of clear-plastic glasses (a magic moment). As a conclusion, he retrieves a thermos and a cup from his discarded dress, and tells us all the healthful, stimulating ingredients in the hot drink he pours out and gives to us to pass around.

The piece could certainly be call self-indulgent, but Thompson’s every crazed move is both calculated and layered with wit. Whatever you may think, you can’t take your eyes off him.

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Here’s to Life

Doris Humphrey wanted to acknowledge the innate nobility of humankind in the dances she made right up to her death in 1958. Out of chaos could come order, out of strife, unity. Her protégé, José Limón, shared her optimistic vision. In his own choreography, the tragically flawed men he sometimes played–like Othello and Judas Iscariot—were partially redeemed by remorse and expiation.

The Limón Dance Company is celebrating its 60th anniversary. That’s remarkable, considering that its founder died in 1972. Carla Maxwell, artistic director since 1978, must be doing something right. She certainly chose wisely in reviving two beautiful, small-scale pieces Humphrey made for Limón’s company in the 1940s, Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejías and Day on Earth; in offering Limón’s 1949 masterwork, The Moor’s Pavane; and in commissioning Lar Lubovitch to create a new piece. A revival of Limón’s 1971 Dances for Isadora shows off five of company’s fine women performers, and excerpts from A Choreographic Offering, Limón’s 1964 tribute to Humphrey, sends all the dancers soaring through ecstatic architectural patterns.

Day on Earth is a small marvel. Humphrey distills the cycle of life into a dance for four people: a man laboring to plow, sow, and harvest; a playful young girl who charms him; the woman he takes as his partner; and the little girl she bears. Every step, every gesture, every rhythmic shift is shaped by Humphrey’s grand idea. She shows us that the youn woman—as springy as a young animal—is no wife for the man; with her draped happily across his back, he works harder to plow. The older woman fits her strong, ample, movements to his. And the child, too, is a helpmeet, as well as a joy. In the end, when the man, woman, and girl lie down in front of a small bench and cover themselves with a silk sheet, the child sits quietly above them, gazing toward us—the green shoot pushing up through the withered plants beneath the sod. Raphaël Boumaïla, Roxane D’Orléans Juste, and Kristen Foote perform the roles of the Man, the Woman, and the Young Woman magnificently, with nuanced strength and tenderness, and Morgana Cragnotti is a sweet little cricket of a dancer. The music, Aaron Copland’s 1941 Piano Sonata (played by Michael Cherry), creates an American landscape, but this dance could be performed almost anywhere in the world, and people would weep.

If Humphrey was innovative in using a real child in a dance, she was equally bold in framing the bullfighter hero of Lament with two women, titled the Guardian of Destiny and Witness and Mourner, who speak excerpts from Federico Garcia Lorca’s eponymous poem. At the premiere, the witness was played by an actress, but company dancers Foote and Ryoku Kudo intone the lines with power and clarity, faithfully reproducing the rhythms and somewhat stagy intonations that Humphrey decreed. Their words not only lament and memorialize a master torero dead in the ring, they snare and stab and catch at his flesh. Humphrey made the role for Limón, of course, and meant to eulogize not only Lorca’s hero but all those slain in World War II. Roel Seeber, tall and extremely thin, is best when he attacks the invisible bull of death, his long arms and legs flashing like knives, or when he writhes as the fateful Guardian twists a rope (red as the blood Lorca keeps alluding to) around her arm and drives the rest of it down on him like a sword point. He’s less convincing, less weighty, simply striding across the arena. In this piece, too, there’s a kind of rebirth, generated by the healing veil of memory. Lorca’s images of mortality (“death laid eggs in the wound”) on one particular day “at five in the afternoon” resolve in the penultimate, “Nobody knows you. No. But I sing of you./ For posterity I sing of your profile and grace.”

I saw a splendid performance of The Moor’s Pavane. It’s Limón’s work, but Humphrey had a hand in it—helping choose the Henry Purcell music that fits this distillation of Shakespeare’s Othello so perfectly, and as Limón’s artistic adviser lending him her shrewd eye and her passion for telling economy. The tensions between the jealous Moor, his innocent wife, his vengeful “friend,” and the friend’s besotted wife are so delicately balanced in an ongoing court dance that the slightest shift of temperament threatens their whole small world. Francisco Ruvalcaba gives a magnificent performance as the Moor, gloomy suspicion teased into terrifying, air-lashing rage. As the Iago figure, Seeber is a good match for Ruvalcaba, able to wrap his spidery legs around his prey with horrid slyness. The greatly gifted Kudo brings out Emilia’s sensuality and her flirtatious, duplicitous nature, and D’Orléans Juste wonderfully captures Desdemona’s gentleness, her love for Othello, and her disbelief in the idea that he could mistrust her.

Kudo and D’Orleans Juste also excel in Dances for Isadora (set to Chopin piano pieces)—Kudo playing Duncan as passionate maenad, D’Orleans Juste as Duncan the flag-waving revolutionary. Kathryn Alter’s restrained portrait of a mother mourning her lost children (from Duncan’s somber Russian years) contrasts with Kristen Foote’s gorgeously fluid evocation of the youthful, spring-intoxicated Isadora. Maxwell performs the final scarf dance in which aging, tipsy Isadora invokes her previous “selves” before dying with her scarf wrapped around her neck. This last episode I’ve always found a bit maudlin, but Maxwell imbues it with thoughtful subtleties.

Despite my admiration for these versatile, wonderfully expressive dancers and their dedication to their heritage, I worry a little about occasional erosions in the Limón-Humphrey style. This was brought home by the matinée performance of A Choreographic Offering that I saw. It begins beautifully, with the entering dancers showing the breath-suspended lyricism that shapes the phrases Limón drew from Humphrey’s dances for his homage to her. Not far into the piece, I start to fall asleep. The choreographic rhythms are wedded to Bach’s quarter notes, rarely getting any swifter, but that’s never bothered me before. What’s missing are the dynamics that would provide contrast—the little sharpnesses, the sudden swoops, the happy plunges off balance. Everything looks careful, blanded out; I feel as if I’m watching the dance through a veil of reverence. The main thing that’s missing here (and very occasionally elsewhere) is that Limón-Humphrey way of seeming to draw suspended moments from the floor and up through the body, and of falling out of certain steps rather than simply putting a foot down.

Lubovitch’s Recordare honors Limón’s Mexican roots. It’s a charmer, and we get to see the dancers in new guises. In this lively gloss on Mexico’s Day of the Dead, the usually grave Ruvalcaba is the dapper, lusty hip twitching, skeleton figure who leads the revels and D’Orleans Juste the grieving widow he easily woos into a lusty dance. Ruvalcaba’s character later disguises himself as a big-titted women and pulls the drunken Bradley Shelver into a waltz. Jonathan Riedel appears as a pot-bellied devil with a waggling tongue, who both scares and amuses the villagers.

As in the real Day of the Dead festivals, acts that acknowledge death and remember the dead are leavened with pranks and celebratory dances.
Ken Foy’s terrific set imitates a carved wooden portal that can frame either a church or a little stage with a red velvet curtain. Out through the door comes the crowd, sombreros and shawls temporarily hiding their skeleton masks. The curtain opens to reveal masked “musicians” with cardboard instruments, then a frolicking bride and groom (Kyudo and Jonathan Riedel), then a couple (Katie Diamond and Seeber) with big troubles. The master of ceremonies plants a cleaver in Seeber’s skull, and Diamond performs vigorous resuscitation without (duh!) success. It takes a passing saint (Foote) to perform the necessary miracle. Lubovich found the perfect music for Recordare, selections from Elliot Goldenthal’s lively Juan Darien: A Carnival Mass. Anne Hould Ward designed the terrific costumes.

In its own impudent way, Recordare carries a message not unlike Humphrey’s and Limón’s. Death and birth circle endlessly, and joy, not to mention survival, depends on our gazing more toward the light than into the darkness.

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Fitting the Shoe

What if Cinderella didn’t wear glass slippers but went barefoot to the ball, her feet masked only by glitter? This vexingly complicated message about simplicity isn’t the only puzzling aspect of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s version of the tale, which was presented at BAM by his excellent company, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, as part of “Monaco Takes New York” week (who knew?).

Cinderella is far less striking than Maillot’s Romeo and Juliet, seen here four years ago, although the ballet inhabits a brilliant set by Ernest Pignon-Ernest. White panels, like rippled sheets of paper standing on end, glide about to conceal people, reveal new tableaux, and alter the space. The usual characters and themes are in place, except that the father doesn’t die, he just gets henpecked. The exceedingly charming Prince (Asier Uriagereka) enjoys roughhousing with four athletic boon companions, but sees no woman worth changing his lifestyle for until the kitchen maid comes to the ball. The Fairy Godmother is the same fine dancer (Bernice Coppieters) who plays the heroine’s mother, but the resemblance is almost nonexistent. The FGM’s gestures are sometimes those of a predatory insect (she keeps bopping people on the nose in a friendly manner) and sometimes those of a siren. She wears a teensy pancake tutu and lots of sparkles, but has a thing about Cinderella remaining unpretentious in a plain white satin gown like her mother’s. There are a couple of newcomers to the fairy tale: two tall fellows in ties and ankle-length shirts, who are listed in the program as “Superintendents of Pleasure” and act as the FGM’s fashion consultants. Mirko Hecktor and Gaëtan Morlotti are awfully good in the roles, but their intrusive campiness (they manage the ball, too) becomes wearing.

Maillot has some clever ideas. The same faceless, padded mannequins (all male) who model crooked lizard-tailed tutus for the stepmother (Carole Pastorel) and her nasty, pretty daughters (Samantha Allen and Nathalie Leger) also perform a lickety-split “This Is Your Life” play for Cinderella. The choreographer also excels at ecstatic pas de deux. The opening idyllic one for C’s father (the excellent Chris Roelandt) and mother and the later, more puppyish one for the Prince and the lovely and touching Aurélia Schaefer as C are full of rushings together, rapt twinings, swoons, and kisses. There’s no stopping to reconnoiter, even when running a hand down a loved one’s body.

However, at times, especially during the first act, you wonder if anyone’s ever going to dance. The strong, vivid performers execute dance steps—a sudden leap, a spin, a perch on pointe—but these are used as dramatic gestures, along with crouching, pointing, yanking someone around, and so on. And when there is dancing, it’s often deliberately quirky and unfluid, and it happens in short spurts. The FGM seems about to jump out of her skin. Stage-managing a daughter’s career from the beyond must require a lot of caffeine.


During the latter part of José Limón’s life, he became rhapsodic, almost unrestrained—building weighted, yet soaring architecture out of dancing bodies. When his 1970 The Unsung (featured through Sunday on Program B of his company’s season at the Joyce) begins in a hush, broken only by the stamping of male feet, you wonder if you’ll last through it. Seven men (down from the original eight) stand for seven legendary American Indian leaders, and you can guess that each is going to perform a substantial solo. You survive. The solos, emerging from group circles and processions and absorbed back into them, are superbly vivid studies in dignity, bravery, and strength, in pain and degradation. This man’s suspended reach, that one’s twisted jump, another’s collapsing back-somersaults convey a precarious equilibrium. Their winging arms and reiterated stamping suggest rituals in the face of disaster. The men do Limón proud, especially Charles Scott, Raphaël Boumaïla, and Francisco Ruvalcaba.

You can see Limón’s lineage in the resonant patterns of New Dance, Variations and Conclusion, the final section of a 1935 masterwork by his mentor, Doris Humphrey. In this view of an ideal democracy, soloists emerge from a constantly re-forming group, then rejoin to support its designs. Set to a two-piano score by Wallingford Riegger, Humphrey’s bold, plain work is always surprising in the way those designs skein over the floor and climb a small mountain of boxes. I could wish the dancers performed with more elation and sense of purpose, that the final turns on the boxes hadn’t lost the image of a whirl into a slight side lunge and acquired a detrimental little jolt, that the boxes were the expected gray-blue instead of peach, but to see the piece again is a great pleasure.

The Limón-Humphrey vocabulary, with its suspensions and falls, its interplay of curving and jagged lines, is arresting in itself, but it’s best when driven by some inner purpose. Artistic director Carla Maxwell has a difficult job finding new works that both spice the repertory and suit the heritage. Alas, ex-company member Adam Hougland’s Phantasy Quintet only drifts soulfully on top of an unidentified piece of music by Ralph Vaughan Williams, bearing hints of drama, anchored to nothing we can fully grasp.

Limón’s great 1949 The Moor’s Pavane seems timeless by virtue of its masterful structure and magnificently expressive choreography. At the Joyce, it shines despite Jonathan Riedel’s strangely flaccid Iago. Kimiye Corwin and Roxane d’Orleans Juste give luminous portrayals of Desdemona and Emilia. Ruvalcaba (Othello) has grown greatly since he joined the company. Looking not unlike Limón and a lot like John Travolta, he was, from the beginning, a candidate for leading roles. His torso at times still doesn’t fully power his movements. Yet he’s a vibrant Othello, carving up the space in his torment. He may well become a great one.


Two master dancers died on Easter weekend, Cholly Atkins and Bertram Ross, both in their eighties. Atkins was pushing 90 and had had a long career—tapping with the Rhythm Pals in vaudeville; choreographing and dancing for movies; devising moves for the Supremes, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and many other groups; teaming up with Honi Coles after World War II. The pair had style and chops to burn. Atkins came out of retirement in 1988 and shared a Tony as one of the choreographers of the Broadway revue Black and Blue. The title of his autobiography, Class Act, says it all.

Ross had been ill with Parkinson’s for some time, yet not long ago he was still enjoying his second career—occasional appearances in cabaret with his partner, the witty singer-songwriter John Wallowitch. His most notable career, of course, was as a leading dancer in Martha Graham’s company for 25 years. When Erick Hawkins left both the company and their marriage, Ross was the one Graham selected to replace him as Oedipus in Night Journey. The stunning, insinuatingly erotic solo with a cloak was in part his invention. A superb actor-dancer, he also took over, with distinction, Merce Cunningham’s role in Appalachian Spring. Graham created many splendid parts for him, like St. Michael in Seraphic Dialogue and Agamemnon in Clytemnestra, and he partnered her onstage into her old age. Dance on, gentlemen.

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Steinberg Spans Century

From March 22 through 25, Danspace presents Risa Steinberg at St. Mark’s Church, performing solos spanning modern dance history from Isadora Duncan to Ann Carlson. Although she danced for 11 years with José Limón, Steinberg admits, “I thought of myself as a Graham dancer. I viewed everything through Graham eyes. Then I had a back injury and they told me I could never do Graham again.”

Since 1986, she’s been dancing solos choreographed by others. “Isadora Duncan’s Bacchanale is circa 1907; [Anna Sokolow’s] Kaddish is 1946; Choreographic Offering is José, 1964; Mark Morris’s solo Bijoux is 1983.” Eight in all. A long program?

“No. Bacchanale is only three minutes long, [Doris Humphrey’s] Two Ecstatic Themes is six. When it’s a solo, you are the story from beginning to end. It’s extraordinary what Wrath [by Eleanor King] can say in four minutes. Mind-boggling! The more contemporary they are, the longer the dances get.”

The premiere, It’s Too Beautiful a Day by Carlson, marks Steinberg’s first onstage speaking. She commissioned the piece, she says, “because there’s so much movement in my concert; I wanted to show another aspect of where dance has gone in America.” Inspired by a post-concert Q&A of Steinberg’s and a radio interview with Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, Carlson had Steinberg layer descriptions of her daily routine with quotes from Prejean about witnessing her first execution. The juxtaposition is an emotional kick in the gut. “I wear a dress made of the American flag,” says Steinberg. “It’s funny—I hope. And sad. It feels very naked.”

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Dancing Grief Away

People often say that Antony Tudor’s great Dark Elegies looks like a modern dance. Made for Marie Rambert’s little company in 1937 during the early, heady days of British ballet, the work’s starkness—and the anguished gestures that distorted classical line—allied it with Expressionism. So did the plain, blocky clothes in which designer Nadia Benois dressed the dancers, and the unusual choice of music—Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder cycle. The subject, too, was atypical in the ballet world: a fishing community ritually mourns the death of its children in a disaster the audience can only guess at. Kurt Jooss, a pupil of Rudolf von Laban, had fled Germany for England in 1933, bringing with him ideas about the expressive body; whether or not Tudor was influenced by Jooss, word of burgeoning modern dance, whether German or American, was in the air.

So it’s not surprising that the Limón Dance Company should take on Dark Elegies. It shares with Jose Limón’s style ardent gestures that sculpt space. The dancers understand how to sink into a step or suspend it as if on a catch of the breath. In ballet company productions of the work (American Ballet Theatre danced it wonderfully under Tudor’s direction), only three women soloists perform on pointe. On Limón’s opening night, however, the work, although conscientiously rendered, looks light, its clarity blurred, its intensity veiled.

The Limón company has dispensed with Benois’s seascape backdrops, but Ted Sullivan skillfully lights a plain cyclorama to suggest a turbulent sky and a hint of wateriness. I do miss having a costumed singer seated onstage as part of the community, even if accompanied by piano rather than orchestra. Kathleen Ferrier’s recorded voice is almost too thrilling; the baritone voice that usually accompanies the ballet sounds more natural, more plausibly that of a member of the community.

Pointework is most vital to the fourth song in this poignant ritual of grief. Tudor used pointe shoes to heighten emotion; they increase the arc of the soloist’s rocking steps; you feel them piercing the earth. Without them, given Mary Ford’s rather inexpressive interpretation, the solo seems numb. I missed that needling extension to the foot far less in Natalie Desch’s lovely, nuanced, technically expert performance of the opening dance.

In their solos, Bradon McDonald and Zhen Jun Zhang accurately project Tudor’s designs and a general sadness. But one of the most moving things about the ballet is each character’s quite different outbursts, coming as they do out of a painful restraint—torsos held erect and narrow, arms almost rigidly at the sides, formal courtesies, and muted folk dance chains. Zhang’s performance is underarticulated and guarded (the music seems slower than usual, but this may be an illusion). It’s difficult to get both speed and clarity into those sharp twists and outbreaks of dancing that tear at the body, those footsteps that score the air. McDonald performs a rapid beating of foot against floor, as if he were remembering a phantom tap dance. In time, the excellent company should be able to bring this masterpiece to full ripeness.

Doug Varone’s The Plain Sense of Things, created for the company, mates interestingly with Tudor’s work. It too shows a community, but one in which interchanges are fluid and almost constant, and the people touch one another freely, without ceremony. Varone’s spatial designs are unlike Tudor’s; they evoke neither folk dance nor ritual. Clusters spill open, encounters may be glimpsed through a moving thicket. Dancers push at one another softly, as if trying to find reciprocal harmony.

The piece builds (although Philip Glass’s surprisingly undriven The Saxophone Quartet does not). Three brief, contrasting duets particularize the search for compatibility. The section called “Singing Beyond What You Can Hear” is enriched by Nina Watt’s uncannily beautiful performance. She senses something the others (Ford, company director Carla Maxwell, and Carlos Orta) do not, something that unsettles her dancing. Quietly uneasy, she sits guard over the others’ sleeping bodies, but joins the final, increasingly joyful migration across the stage and into darkness. A rare performer, a fine dance.

**Everyman—endowed with a dubious self- image, a propensity for fantasy, and a room loaded with video equipment—could be heading for danger. Coming home to a lonely apartment, he can pour himself a martini, and—grabbing one of the remotes that spill from his briefcase—switch on lights, monitor, and the camcorder pointed at his easy chair. He may end up like Charles Dennis in his brilliant 1998 Mr.Remote: kissing and stroking a screen full of his own face, while a dozy voice sings, “I want to lay like this forever, until the sky falls into the sea.”

Dennis—performer, media artist, and one of the founders of P.S. 122—charts the descent into addiction with wit, irony, charm, and a trace of well-managed pathos. Here’s this nimble, balding guy in a suit, crawling below the camera’s line of fire to take his own image by surprise. He’s fascinated by his own feet dancing. He and his drunken shadow grab at his replayed antics on a big screen. Spinning, he transforms himself into the still center of a whirling floor. The piece perfectly and scarily captures the seductive demonics of our increasingly virtual world.

The 1997 Me & My Dad & TV is a deep, layered, talking-dancing-media odyssey into Dennis’s past and his relationship with his father, who’s present on one monitor as an intermittently talking head—smart, affable, with reserves of cantankerousness. Another monitor shows a video diary Dennis made over the course of 1994. On the big screen: family photos, home movies, assorted film and video clips. A teenage Dennis sports a Beatles wig and plays rock with his buddies at his mom’s cocktail party. Young and lean, he dances around Europe with Byrd Hoffman’s School for Byrds (Robert Wilson’s group).

Dennis Jr.’s view of the events in his growing up wrangle with Dennis Sr.’s memories. The choreographer remembers a triumphant touchdown; his dad remembers only that his kid was knocked down. As for Wilson, Dad recalls that in Deafman Glance it took someone half an hour to pick up a glass of water, for God’s sake. Predictably, the two don’t have the same take on parental divorce either, or on the weekends when Dennis Sr. left his family and adventured on boats with cronies.

The choreographer regresses periodically to the disappointed or enthusiastic youth he was, and as a wryly affectionate adult pushing 50 talks back to a dad who’s easily controlled by hands up in the booth where the technological magic and Jane Cox’s fine lighting originate. Irritations and misunderstandings can’t hide the wit and good humor of both men, and the warmth of their relationship. This father contributed “additional text” to the piece and sits proudly in the opening-night audience.

The use of video in live performance can often seem gratuitous. Dennis cannily exploits its capacity to make memories visible and cause time to dance.

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To Dance Is To Live

When José Limón died in 1972, he left a world from which most of his ideals seemed to have evaporated, and a memoir written in longhand on a yellow legal pad. His choreography and style of movement, which glorified heroic, tragic figures— Othello, Jesus, the Emperor Jones— were being eclipsed by a more casual way of dancing. The politics of multiculturalism were as yet a dream. This immigrant son of a Mexican musician, oldest of a dozen children, created some world-class modern dance, but the company he left behind had no real management. For years its fate hung in the balance.

The troupe is on a roll now; its lyrical repertory still speaks to a wide audience. Limón’s fascinating history is newly uncovered as well. Designer Charles Tomlinson donated the yellow pad to the New York Public Library’s Dance Collection, and it has been twice resurrected. José Limón: An Unfinished Memoir (Wesleyan University Press, $29.95) has just been published, and next week a documentary film of the artist’s life and work, largely based on the material in the memoir, receives a work-in-progress screening at the 92nd Street Y, with producer Ann Vachon, director Malachi Roth, and Limón company director Carla Maxwell in attendance. Deborah Jowitt, a sometime Limón dancer who contributed a knowing, affectionate introduction to the book and appears in the film, will moderate the evening.

“True artistry is an inborn incandescence, a diadem, nimbus, panoply,” writes Limón, who shares, in often superheated prose, illuminating stories about his relationship with Martha Graham and other great figures of the ’30s and ’40s. But his long battle with cancer kept him from going much farther. His history ends just before he is drafted into World War II; archivist Norton Owen, director of the Limón Institute, summarizes the rest of the saga, charting the masterworks the choreographer produced after the war. Editor Lynn Garafola has done a superb job of scholarship, annotating the text and providing an exhaustive catalogue of the dances.

Limón grew up with the century, was buffeted by its struggles, felt his universe and its traumas in a visceral way, and transformed his passions into enduring dances. The book is much more than a reference work; it’s a rare, intensely personal glimpse of an artist and his time.

Beyond Words: The Life of José Limón will be screened Monday at 8:15 at the 92nd Street Y; call 996-1100 for information.

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Powerglut

Wally Cardona opens Dance Theater Workshop’s Carnival Series (through May 23) performing an excerpt from José Limón’s The Unsung, a 1971 suite of solos that’s as much Limón’s hymn to marvelous male dancers as an homage to legendary Indian chiefs. Idealism shines through the beautifully shaded images of prowess, wariness, and spiritual openness.

Compare this solo to the one with which Cardona begins his new Open House 01. A harsh little lamp (the stunning lighting’s by Philip W. Sandström) throws his shadow on the back wall. Rooted to one spot, staring at us, Cardona smoothly wrenches his body into curious postures. His arms cinch invisible girths; he seems to swell up. As in other works, he plays against his juicy muscularity and Juilliard training to reflect the perilous distortions of contemporary existence. Early modern dance acknowledged unwholesome states as conquerable adversaries. Cardona locks his dancers into instability as a norm. These ’90s are anything but gay.

In Four Ramonas, the superb dancers (Kimberly Bartosik, Alan Good, Kathryn Sanders, and the choreographer) softly tangle with the air and one another, their arms following their occasional rapt upward gaze as if the old sentimental ditty “Ramona” were a talismanic hymn. Open House is more violent, part of it set to battering techno-pop music. In one section, the four roll and flail as if harried by wind. Duets are challenges for gently twisting, poking limbs. Guest artists assist Cardona in deconstructing his heritage. Christine Dakin of the Graham Company, Benjamin Millepied of New York City Ballet, and ex-Limón dancer Risa Steinberg— one, two, or three per performance— alter the work in various ways (Dakin presides snakily over a stage of fallen bodies).

Cardona devises arresting movement and organizes it suavely in space. If his pieces lose force at times, it’s because he maintains one dynamic tone for long stretches. The fickle eye tires of what once entranced it.