Limon Dance Company

at Merle Reskin Theatre,

March 17 and 18

When the Limon Dance Company performs the work of modern-dance pioneer Doris Humphrey it resurrects a long-forgotten zeitgeist. Back in the 1930s and ’40s, when Humphrey was experimenting with balance, falling, and recovery, her choreography was entirely new and distinctly American. Her techniques deeply influenced choreographers in the latter half of the 20th century, but the true essence of her art lies in the spirit her dances conveyed. And here she differs wildly from her descendants. Her art shines with hope and a simple faith in the progress of humanity–a faith that once may have seemed distinctly American but is now missing from much of contemporary art.

In a way, that’s to be expected; American society has changed, and good art reflects the changes. Yet it’s amazing that 49 years after its founding–it’s the oldest modern-dance company in the world–the Limon Company can still communicate Humphrey’s indomitable spirit to a society with decidedly different concerns. And they succeeded in doing this in most of her dances on this program, which opened the 1995 Spring Festival of Dance.

Nowhere were they more successful than in Humphrey’s Day on Earth, a dance that resonates deeply despite its somewhat dated context. Choreographed in 1947, it traces the life of a simple farm worker who tills the soil, falls in love, loses his love, finds a wife, raises a daughter, loses the daughter, then loses the wife. After mourning each loss he resumes his work, as a good man should, yet the images of his lost loves haunt him, dancing around as he plows and sows. This is one of Humphrey’s more psychological dances, and it works because it expresses fundamental themes in the human drama: love and loss. As choreography it’s a masterpiece, eloquent in its simplicity and universal in its appeal. Artistic director Carla Maxwell underlined this universality by casting Paul Dennis, a native of Trinidad, as the man; Pamala Jones, an African American, as the young girl; herself, an Anglo-American, as the woman; and Michi Osato, an Asian American, as the daughter.

Humphrey’s earlier choreography is elegant yet incredibly simple. To audiences accustomed to 15-second sound bites it can also seem incredibly slow. All these elements are found in Air for the G String, choreographed in 1928 to a movement from Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite and beautifully staged by Humphrey scholar Ernestine Stodelle. The movement is almost regal. Each of the dancers has a long, flowing cape that billows about her as she walks slowly then poses like a figure on a Greek urn

or a Maxfield Parrish painting. Humphrey’s reverence for times past could seem comical, but, like Parrish’s art, it truly reflects the spirit of the late 1920s. Here the dancers performed with a genuine understanding of this vision, and the work seemed like a window opened onto an era.

Humphrey’s greatest contribution to modern dance grew out of her fascination with the body’s relationship to gravity. Like Graham, she was driven to create organic choreography that was the antithesis of ballet. Where ballet strove to reach the heavens by defying gravity, Humphrey achieved the same goal by befriending it. Two Ecstatic Themes, a solo danced by Roxane D’Orleans Juste, is one of the best examples of this. The first part is a series of movements that circle and spiral downward, including one of the most beautiful turns ever choreographed: The dancer arches backward and bends her knees as she spins, slowly lowering herself to the ground. Once her back and knees both touch the floor, she keeps spiraling around, sweeping the floor with her body until she comes to a natural resting position. The second part, “Pointed Ascent,” contains a series of angular upward and outward movements in which the dancer leads with her elbows or her hands clasped together. It culminates in a classic Humphrey pose: standing with the legs spread beyond the shoulders and bent at the knees, the dancer looks defiantly forward, clasps her hands, and thrusts them above her head.

Limon Dance Company was founded in 1946 by dancer Jose Limon, with Humphrey as artistic director. After Humphrey retired, Limon, a major choreographic figure in his own right, assumed artistic control, and in 1964 he created A Choreographic Offering as a tribute to his lifelong mentor. From a purely intellectual perspective, the piece is interesting because it shows how Humphrey’s technique evolved and adapted. But it was one of the weakest pieces on this program, having none of the passion for which Limon was so famous and conveying nothing about Limon’s feelings toward a woman whose work he so obviously admired.

At first Garth Fagan’s Never No Lament, commissioned by the company in 1994, seemed to suffer from the same problem. The first movement seemed like an intellectual tip of the hat to Humphrey–all technique and no soul. But Fagan soon began blending in his own jazz movements and fancy footwork, and the piece came alive. Danced primarily to an uplifting rendition of traditional African music by the Kronos Quartet, Never No Lament conveyed the essence of strength: the ability to rejoice despite life’s hardships. With its gravity-defying arabesques and leaps, Fagan’s movement vocabulary is very different from Humphrey’s. But he seems to have inherited a bit of her soul.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Tom Caravaglia.