Limon Dance Company

at Cahn Auditorium of

Northwestern University, March 9 and 10

By Terry Brennan

Sometimes a dance seems blurred, as if someone had rubbed Vaseline on a glass wall built into the proscenium arch. The movement is missing something. In two of the pieces on the Limon Dance Company program, what was missing was the specific technique for the dance showcased. The dancers went through their assigned motions; but without the special quality that training instills, the works just seemed fuzzy.

Because Ralph Lemon is a contemporary choreographer whose work I’ve seen, it’s easier to pinpoint the missing technique. The dancers in Lemon’s former company–he recently disbanded it–were trained in release technique, a method dating from the 1960s and taught most prominently at the Center for Movement Research in New York. A dancer trained in release technique is taught to let go of muscular tension, to dance with the skeleton rather than the muscles. This kind of dancer can be noodly, so relaxed that he or she seems passive. But Lemon learned how to make dances that show these dancers’ best side: their legs seem to float to the ceiling without any effort, and they’re so completely relaxed in their turns that they look like windmills, as a turning arm passes momentum to a turning leg, which passes momentum on to the torso or head. In a series of dances for his company, particularly Their Eyes Rolled Back in Ecstasy, Lemon turned the technique’s passivity into a spiritual statement of acceptance and Shaker-like simplicity.

But the dance Lemon created for the Limon company, Pale Grass and Blue, and Then Red, rarely reaches his higher spiritual octaves. All the trademark features are present–simple but appealing costumes, a chorus of dancers in which all are equal, windmill turns, a gentle demeanor–but the Limon dancers make the piece too dramatic, particularly in its middle section. They just don’t have the sense of abandon and quasi-religious ecstasy of a dancer like Lemon’s Wally Cardona.

The special quality missing from Jose Limon’s The Moor’s Pavane, first performed in 1949, is harder to identify. But Joanne Harris, writing in the Dance Critics Association newsletter about current performances of work by Limon’s teacher Doris Humphrey, puts her finger on it: “Today’s training…is ballet-based, controlled, and over-emphasizes technique at the expense of dramatic and expressive qualities and what, for lack of a better word, we used to call ‘quality.'” In other words, when Limon created The Moor’s Pavane the principle of emotion ruled the dance world, and high dramas like this version of Othello were favored. Dancers’ bodies in the 1940s were lit up with energy, a result of their training in expressiveness. The performers in the Limon company dance well, but without that old-style energy The Moor’s Pavane becomes a chestnut. They can’t bring to life its unusual form: a series of Renaissance dances, such as the pavane of the title, linked by mime interludes.

Daniel Nagrin’s two psychological sketches from 1948 survive the years better, perhaps because they look out at the world rather than looking in at dance. Strange Hero is a portrait of a thug–a dandy in a new suit whose face we cannot see at first. He seems to loiter at a street corner, begins to beat and kick someone, is stabbed himself, and finally dies in a series of lithe falls onto his back. Spanish Dance is a more fully realized portrait: a flamenco dancer who’s at first trapped under a central overhead light, holding her arms tightly behind her back, becomes a free creature moving around the entire stage, her arms unbound. This moving picture of liberation through discipline features a pair of startling moves: in the first half the standing dancer puts her weight onto the top of her feet and slides into a cross-legged seated position before she rises from it; in the second half, she repeats the painful-looking movement but from a high pas de chat.

The most successful work is made up of excerpts from Limon’s 1964 A Choreographic Offering, based on movements from several Doris Humphrey dances. A genteel piece that wouldn’t look out of place as the balletic interlude of an opera, it’s filled with precisely placed arms and precise foot patterns, such as arms held in a circle over a dancer’s head as her torso bends to the side, or a tiny half step as a grace note before a more propulsive step. The dance’s main emotion is restraint and decorum; it calls for precise dancing and noble feeling and receives both in abundance from the Limon dancers. The gentle, clean shapes from Humphrey’s choreography are soothing and graceful.

Thinking about the importance of trained technique, I recalled a discussion with Wally Cardona at a reception after the premiere of Lemon’s Their Eyes Rolled Back in Ecstasy at the Dance Center of Columbia College. Cardona said that form wasn’t important, that spirit had carried the company’s dancing to the point it had reached. I disagreed, saying that only form endures. Sadly, I was right.