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Limon Dance Company At the Joyce: 65 Years and Still Going Strong…

June 25, 2012

The Emperor Jones, Daniel Fetecua Soto as the Emperor & Durell Comedy as The Trader Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Ok, I was a little shaky, not quite sure of what to expect from the Limón Dance Company’s performance at the Joyce this week. I knew of José Limón and his work, after all one of my mentors, Edith Stephen had studied and danced with José in the early days of his company. She even was his stand-in when he was not available to teach class. So I have heard wonderful stories about his talents, vision, and drive but more importantly the gentleness of his nature and the kindness of his heart.

I had seen José Limón’s The Moor’s Pavane performed by Rudolph Nureyev many years ago. As any student of dance history I was well aware of Mr. Limón’s importance to the dance movement that became American Modern Dance. He is part of a Parthenon of greatness that established what we know as modern or contemporary dance, Graham, Cunningham, Doris Humphreys, Charles Weidman and José Limón. His name is part of the foundation of granite that dance as we know it has been built upon, along with rivers of sweat and one painstaking contraction, fall and release, tilt and tendu at a time.

The Emperor Jones was choreographed by José Limón and premiered in 1956. It is loosely based on Eugene O’Neil’s 1920 play by the same name. In O’Neil’s play a fugitive from a chain gain, sets himself up as emperor of an island domain, he becomes a tyrant and the treatment of his subjects causes them to rebel, they hunt him down, and bring him to an ignominious death. José Limón went further; he delves into the undercurrents of Emperor Jones’ emotions, seeking out not just the tyrant but the man underneath, a being of fallibility and inner fears.

Daniel Soto as the Emperor and Durell Comedy as The Trader in The Emperor Jones, Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

‘For his EMPEROR JONES in 1956, Limón and his collaborator, the composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, attempted “a symbolic synthesis of a man’s disintegration through terror.” Limón told an interviewer, “We concentrated on the psychological possibilities Jones presented. The human body can be more powerfully expressive, because the expression is not specific. A chain gang, a ship, and other scenes are suggested. But these things are in the mind of Jones, which is tortured by phantasmagoria of his recent deeds.

– From the Limón Journal, Spring 1997, p. 8.

The Emperor Jones opens with a very handsome Daniel Fetecua Soto seated upon his great throne, a figure of obvious distress as he holds his head in his hands. Durell Comedy as The Trader confronts him, forcing him to acknowledge his wrongs and own his misdeeds. Mr. Comedy was awesome, a dancer of great conviction, he has expressive musicality with long clean lines and impeccable technique.

Mr. Soto is tormented by his demons, his guilt and anguish is well expressed in his solos, hitting of the thighs in lament, arms stretched out for forgiveness. He falls to his knees in prayer or lamentation as the men he condemned to slavery are seen behind him, marching souls, tormented and ill-fated.

Seeking divine intervention for their fates, the slaves evoke an elaborate African Ritual, carrying one man as a supposed offering to the dark gods of their homelands. The slaves combine as one to create a great beast of retribution, an African masked being of tremendous power beseeching it to free them of the Emperor’s bondage. Jones is pulled to the magic and power of the beast which then entraps him and carries him off struggling into the darkness. To me this is the best part of the ballet; there is raw passion here, a building violence seeking release.

Mr. Comedy, as Jones nemesis The Trader, is seen dragging the Emperor’s large empty throne to center stage, he circles it admiringly and casually sets upon it, fanning himself with his white hat, reveling in Jones demise. The slaves celebrate, jumping and waving the Emperor’s clothing while others carry his lifeless body on stage for display. The Trader comes over, bends over him and gloats, kicking his body as further insult. Emperor Jones is then placed on his throne dead, a parody of the former power he once was.

From the first opening notes of the specially commissioned score by Heitor Villa-Lobos, we are thrown into a world of drama and passion. Within the choreography you get a glimpse of José Limón’s pioneering and innovations so novel at the time, the exploration with technique, heightened pauses, the use of breath, and Doris Humphrey’s rise and fall approach to movement.

Logan Francis Kruger & Kristen Foote in La Cathédrale Engloutie Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Sheryl Liu added yet another element to the mystery and suspense of the work. Ms. Liu was chosen from an international design competition for the set and costumes for the revival of The Emperor Jones. The Emperor Jones was a great success, a great production, well danced and I am sure José Limón would be proud!

I wish I had something good to say about Chaconne. Choreographed and first performed by José Limón in 1947 at the Humphrey-Weidman Studio, it is a rich piece of dance history, a solo that through the years has been performed by both men and women. The music is J.S. Bach’s Chaconne from Partita 02 in D Minor for Unaccompanied Violin, a rich and vibrant score, almost sensual in its tone.

But, Roxanne D’Orleans Juste did not do the dance or the music justice. She seemed lost, a bit overwhelmed, her balance was unsure, her legs wobbly and she repeatedly fell out of her turns. Ms. Juste tried to make up for lack of technique by expressing herself emotionally with the music, but that can only take you so far, especially in a solo noted for its need for technical precision. I think Durell Comedy, with his musicality and movement quality would have been a far superior choice. Violinist Kinga Augustyn did not do much better; her rendition of Bach’s masterpiece was screechy and lacked both commitment and emotion.

Logan Francis Kruger on the floor and Kristen Foote on her knees in La Cathédrale Engloutie. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

The revival of Jiri Kylián La Cathédrale Engloutie, created and premiered in 1975 by the Nederlands Dans Theater was a bit of a surprise. If you go into this work, as I did, expected to see something akin to Mr. Kylian’s Black and White Ballets or Petite Mort you will be disappointed for this comes from a completely different period in Mr. Kylian’s life.

There is softness here, that at first I took as mediocrity or just lackluster, for the beginning is slow, not the powerhouse of statement that I had expected. But that is what happens when one puts expectations on a new experience, especially in dance and I was so, so wrong by my first judgmental impressions, this is a masterpiece of a work.

If one allows one-self to sit back, have confidence in the genius of Mr. Kylián than you are in for a treat. The production is a visualization inspired by and built around Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie from preludes, book 1. A 5th century legend from Brittany of people who built a cathedral on the sea as a symbol of the almighty power that would rule over them, but they lived a godless life and did not obey the rules of the church. As a result the cathedral disappeared under the sea and since, it is believed that at some sunrises the cathedral is revealed to only a few chosen ones.

Aaron Selissen is being lifted by Daniel Soto in Come With Me.Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

It is a battle between self-imposed law and order, and at the same time, resistance against those laws. It is a battle that never ends about what is right as opposed to what one wants to do, it is about boundaries and rules and the importance of them.

La Cathédrale Engloutie is a brilliant work and I for one am very grateful the Limón Company sought its revival. For anyone who is an admirer of Jiri Kylián it is a must see. I would love to see it again for I think it is a work multidimensional, layer hidden within layer. Just beautiful!

The World Premiere of Come With Me was choreographed by Rodrigo Pederneiras to music especially created for dance by Paquito D’Rivera and inspired by the Cuban “Ladies In White”. Mr. Pederneiras sought to combine Latin characteristics and combine them with Jazz and Classical technique.

With intricate footwork and partnering, it possessed a light easy feel; it was a mixture of solos, groups and duets that would weave one into another. It is what one would expect from Rodrigo Pederneiras, light, fun but intriguing, Mr. Pederneiras has long been associated with Grupo Corpo who will appear at BAM in November.

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