Jose Limón and Dance History

When Dance Cleveland’s predecessor, Cleveland Modern Dance Association, opened its doors in 1956, one of the first things it did was to bring Jose Limón to town to teach a master class. It was the beginning of a long relationship. In later years, they brought the entire Limón Dance Company to Cleveland — at least twice as we remember — for extended teaching and performing residencies. At other times, individual dancers from the Limón company came through to perform or teach master classes. Limón offshoots like Louis Falco and Jennifer Muller brought their own companies to town. Some who had danced with Limon came to Cleveland to stay, such as Joan Hartshorne, who taught dance at Karamu House where Vic studied and performed with her.

The only time Vic actually saw Limón in person was at a company performance in about 1971 at Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gardner Auditorium. Looking old and frail,   Limón    spoke about Dances for Isadora (“I realized I had some dues to pay.”) and The Unsung, both of which were among the last few dances he choreographed and, arguably, two of his best dances ever.

That’s the beginning of our personal history with the Limón Dance Company and   Limón technique. When we drove down to Playhouse Square last Saturday, we got a history lesson with a different focus.

The concert started with Air for the G String, a 5-minute dance choreographed by Doris Humphrey for 5 women in 1928. Humphrey, who acted as Limón’s mentor until she died in 1958, is credited with originating the idea of fall and recovery, which became the animating principal behind Limón dance technique. Subdued as the choreography for Air is – the 5 women could be marking a dance in someone’s parlor — we can see the beginnings of the fall and recovery technique, although mostly in the fall of the beautiful fabric.

How different what we now call “modern dance” was, even as late as 1928.  With very few exceptions, dance in America was, like Air for the G String, an all-girl enterprise. Some say it started with the 1866 premiere of The Black Crook, which Mark Twain described as “Beautiful bare-legged girls … nothing but a wilderness of girls – stacked up, pile on pile, away aloft to the dome of the theatre, diminishing in size and clothing, till the last row, mere children, dangle high up from invisible ropes, arrayed only in camisa.” Many other extravaganzas followed, touring America with huge casts of largely untrained “ballet” girls, hastily recruited and rehearsed in each town. Through the first generation of American solo dancers, among them Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, and Ruth St. Denis, the level of artistry changed but it was still all women and girls all the time.

The all-girl policy started to change after Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham left the various incarnations of the Denishawn companies where they had both danced, competing for the favor of Ruth Saint Denis and Ted Shawn and taking music lessons from Louis Horst.

After Graham left Denishawn in 1923 she worked with an all female company until 1938 when she brought Erick Hawkins into her company.

Humphrey teamed up with Charles Weidman, another Denishawn alumnus and one of the very few men in modern dance at the time. Their studio and company, the Humphrey-Weidman Dance Company, opened its doors in 1928 and soon afterwards Jose Limón, a 20-year-old failed painter, began studying dance there. Our history lesson will continue after further consideration of the Saturday concert.

The second dance on Saturday’s program, Waldstein Sonata, set to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major, Op. 53, was left incomplete when Limón died of cancer in 1972. The program note says that Limón worked on it in the winter of 1971 and that Daniel Lewis, who became acting artistic director for a time, reconstructed and completed it for a 1975 performance by the Juilliard Dance Ensemble at the Juilliard Theater. The Limón company premiere was not until 2022, which begs the question, “Why the 47-year delay?”

Yaron Kohlberg played the Waldstein Sonata live for Saturday’s concert. We’re not musicians but we understand from our reading that Waldstein Sonata is difficult pianistically and requires a good technique to play well. We also understand that, although Kohlberg has a connection to Cleveland in that he’s president and CEO of the Cleveland International Piano Competition, he’s probably very busy practicing and traveling for other concerts. We were fortunate that he found time to play live for this concert.

As difficult as Waldstein Sonata is to play, it also presents challenges to the choreographer in its fast tempos and many repeats. This may be one of many musical compositions that people counseled Limón not to choreograph to. How many anecdotes have we heard in which people told Limón not to use certain music, that it “wouldn’t work,” with Limón replying, “I love this music and I’m going to use it.”

When Vic moved to New York City for four years in the mid 1970s he was initially busy with a scholarship at Erick Hawkins’ studio, a mixed blessing in that classes with 60-something Erick bore comparison with the dancing in Air for the G String, marking steps in someone’s parlor. The Limón company was still functioning under the leadership of various alumni (Acting Artistic Director Daniel Lewis, succeeded by Ruth Currier and later Lucas Hoving, Carla Maxwell… and now Dante Puleio) and still auditioning from time to time. Were there regular classes in Limón technique at that time? Back in 1951 Limón had accepted a post at the new Juilliard dance department, which apparently made an independent Limón studio unnecessary. Limón exponents Betty Jones, Ruth Currier, Lucy Venable, and June Dunbar contributed to the development of Limón technique at Juilliard. Currier had her own studio in the 1970s and Falco and Muller gave regular classes in their studios.

The 3rd dance on the program was Limón’s Chaconne (1942) set to Bach’s Chaconne from Partita #2 in D Minor for Unaccompanied Violin. Limón himself danced the premiere and we can imagine him or Lewis or Falco making it a duet between dancer and violin and taking things to the edge of danger. Why such a cautious performance from Savannah Spratt?

For companies like those founded by Limón, Graham, Merce Cunningham, and Hawkins, the question is always “What’s next?” What will they do to maintain contemporary relevance after their founders have passed away? The 4th and final dance in the program answers that question nicely. Only One Will Rise (2022) was choreographed by Olivier Tarpaga from Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in West Africa beset by drought, Islamist terrorism, and political instability. Like Limón, he has emigrated to escape political unrest in the country of his birth.

In Only One Will Rise with its funky Afro Pop score by Tarpaga and Tim Motzer, the dancers suddenly come alive and show their chops as contemporary dancers.

DANCECleveland and Tri-C Performing Arts presented Limón Dance Company at the Mimi Ohio Theatre on April 22, 2023 with additional support from National Endowment for the Arts and the Kulas Foundation.

Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas

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