What Art Is Online

José Limón and the Classic Tradition
of Modern Dance

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

In What Art Is, Louis Torres and I argued that the current dance "avant-garde" is worlds apart from the now classic tradition of modern dance exemplified by such figures as Martha Graham, José Limon, Pearl Lang, and Alvin Ailey. That tradition, as critic Tobi Tobias has argued, honors sound craft and intelligibility--and "bears some message about human character and human relationships, reflecting and illuminating the viewer's personal experience" ("Oh, the Humanity," New York, 8 January 1996). It recognizes, in part, Tobias has further observed,

that life is not simple or easy, but its governing attitude is optimistic. You can engage with trouble, the classical modernists tell us, and emerge triumphant, or, if you're defeated, at least go down with your flags flying. Mutual understanding is possible. A community based on common ideals exists. Problems can be examined and resolved. Life at its darkest is still worth living. ["Heart and Craft," New York, 1 April 1996, quoted in What Art Is, pp. 233-34.]

Though we mentioned the choreographer José Limón only in passing in What Art Is, the recent New York appearance, at the Joyce Theater, of the company he co-founded more than half a century ago is a welcome reminder of what is meant by the "classic tradition of modern dance" and warrants comment here.

Born in Mexico in 1908, Limón moved to the United States at an early age and attended his first modern dance performance in New York in 1928. Of that experience, he later said: "What I saw simply and irrevocably changed my life. I saw the dance as a vision of ineffable power. A man could, with dignity and towering majesty, dance . . . as Michelangelo's visions dance and as the music of Bach dances." Inspired to enroll in the dance school of Doris Humphrey [more] (1895-1958) and Charles Weidman (1901-1975), Limón successfully performed in works by them for a decade prior to the Second World War, becoming notable as a dancer for his virile strength and dignity and "brooding intensity." In 1946, Limón and Humphrey co-founded the José Limón Company, which continues to perform dances created by them, along with works by other modern choreographers.

Limón's approach to dance is based on the technique and philosophy of movement developed by Humphrey, one of the leading pioneers of modern dance expression in America. As noted by dance historian Selma Jeanne Cohen,

[Humphrey's] greatest contribution came from her thought of dance as existing in an arc between two deaths: the body lying prone or standing firmly erect--both stable, both lacking in theatrical excitement. Kinetic interest was stirred when the body, venturing from its position of stability, encountered the pull of gravity, defied it, and triumphantly reclaimed its equilibrium. The theory of 'fall and recover,' as it was called, was at once a pure movement idea and a dramatic concept. The threat motivated action that engendered designs in space and time; it also symbolized the eternal conflict between man's longing for security and his desire to risk the dangers of the unknown. In Humphrey choreography, he always dared the dangerous adventure and always emerged victorious.[1]

The present artistic director of the Limón Company, Carla Maxwell (who formerly danced in the company), is dedicated to perpetuating the classic tradition of modern dance. "The whole raison d'être of early moderns like Humphrey and Limón was to create dances about the human condition," she has aptly observed. "There's always a spiritual element in their work. Without that quality, I don't think anything lives on."[2]

Two of Limón's characteristic works, both still in the company's repertory, are The Moor's Pavane (1949), inspired by Shakespeare's Othello and set to music by Henry Purcell, and There Is a Time (1956)--a work that is, choreographically and musically, a theme with variations based on the evocation of human experience in Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes: "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. . . ." Set to a commissioned score by Norman Dello Joio entitled Meditations on Ecclesiastes (which won the composer a Pulitzer Prize in 1957), There Is a Time clearly reflects the music both in structure and mood, thus demonstrating the deep musicality that is a hallmark of Limón's work, as of that of other great choreographers.[3]

November-December 2001

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1. Selma Jeanne Cohen, "Humphrey, Doris," in Encyclopedia of Dance & Ballet, ed. by Mary Clarke and David Vaughan (New York: Putnam's, 1977). Note that "the pull of gravity" was an essential factor in Humphrey's conception of the dance as an art form. In connection with this point, see the suggestion that "ice dancing" does not qualify as dance, properly speaking, because the "natural response to, or struggle against, gravity--which underlies all dance--is minimized in skating" (Torres & Kamhi, What Art Is, 240).

2. Carla Maxwell, quoted by Valerie Gladstone, "How to Spot the Classics in the Crowd of Modern Dance," New York Times, 18 November 2001. Maxwell's stress on dances "about the human condition" contrasts sharply with the work of Merce Cunningham and the whole "postmodernist" approach to dance he has inspired. See Torres & Kamhi, What Art Is, 225-29 and 231-35.

3. On the centrality of music to dance, see "Dance: The 'Silent Partner of Music,'" in Torres & Kamhi, What Art Is, 229-31.

An excellent website maintained by the José Limón Dance Foundation provides further information about the history of the company, the educational activities of the affiliated Limón Institute, and relevant publications--both books and videos, including a recently produced video containing The Moor's Pavane and two other Limón classics filmed in their entirety in the 1950s, with their original casts.

What Art Is Online is a supplement to What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi (2000). The above article relates to Chapter 12: "Avant-Garde [and Traditional] Music and Dance." Copyright is held by the authors.

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