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Flash Review 1, 12-3: Preserved and Revised
Back to the Future with Limon Dance Company and an Edited "Psalm"

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2002 Aimee Ts’ao

SAN FRANCISCO -- When the Limon Dance Company performed at the Cowell Theater last Monday, November 25, it had been 28 years since the last time it appeared here. Granted, the company has danced more frequently in San Jose, where it is affiliated with San Jose State University and conducts workshops, but I have not made it south to see the troupe. More important, as artistic director Carla Maxwell noted during a brief talk before the presentation of Jose Limon's revived and revised "Psalm," the company has now existed for more years without its founder than when he was alive. In light of the great difficulties that the Martha Graham Dance Company endured these past two years, only a decade after her death, this story of survival is quite an achievement.

Admittedly, here I am again with my biases. My first real (as opposed to what was offered through the local Park and Rec department) modern dance training was with Alice Condadina, a dancer in the Limon company, who happened to be spending the summer performing in the Greek Festival in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I was an impressionable high school student with only ballet and jazz training, so to discover an amazing new way of moving led to kinesthetic heaven. About 13 years later I would study with Aaron Osborne, who also had been in the Limon company. By now, I had a lot more perspective on dance and found that this technique suited me physically and emotionally. I was unprepared, though, for the impact that the Limon Dance Company would have on me, having cerebrally forgotten what my body still physically remembered from more than twenty years ago.

The evening opens with a revival of Doris Humphrey's "Invention"(1949), staged by Betty Jones, one of the original cast members along with Limon. At first the dance appears dated, but as it unfolds I begin to appreciate the craft of its construction, the contrasts between different types of movements -- swooping and jumping, for example -- and between speed and stillness. Raphael Boumaila, strong and expressive in his solo, goes on to dance with Mary Ford in a duet that reveals a lovely rapport and total synchronization of movement. The second duet with Kimiye Corwin lacks the same connection despite being well-danced. Overall, the performance reinforces how important it is to keep past works alive so we are familiar with the early dance pioneers and can trace the development of modern dance through succeeding generations.

Carla Maxwell's "Etude" (2002), a solo work very much in the Limon choreographic vein, is a showcase for Jonathan Riedel's considerable talents. Stylized gestures that speak with such intense emotion are not fashionable today in the post-post-modern dance world; either you have naturalistic movements to show the feelings or you have dead-pan faces with no feeling. But it's the extensive and imaginative use of arms that triggers my memories. The richness of movement in the entire torso, out through the fingers, is what is missing in so much contemporary choreography. Ironically, I think of the Bolshoi Ballet and how alive those dancers' entire bodies are, not just with legs and arms in proper positions, but with energy emanating through every cell. And I ask why has so much dance and how have so many dancers forgotten the very essence of this art? In front of me is Riedel taking my breath away with his totally committed performance and I realize that any less an authentic rendering would almost be embarrassing, would seem fake. Fortunately, the entire audience reacts enthusiastically and confirms my belief in the power of communicating feelings, not just intellectual ideas.

Roxane D'Orleans Juste has the unenviable job of coming after the "hard act to follow" in an excerpt from Donald McKayle's "Heartbeats" (Oneero) (1997). What a joy to watch Juste propel herself to a state of ecstasy as she races around the stage, executing the fleetest footwork I've seen in a long time, and radiating utter bliss. She certainly equals Riedel's showing.

Before the performance of Limon's "Psalm"(1967), Maxwell describes the process of restaging this lost masterpiece and collaborating with composer Jon Magnussen, who wrote the new music (the original score was improvised, explains Maxwell), in preparation for the first presentation of this revised revival this past February. She had danced in the original and felt, she says, that it was too long and needed severe editing, but also wanted to follow Limon's artistic intentions. The story is one from ancient Jewish tradition, wherein all the sorrows of the world rest within 36 Just Men called the "Lamed-Vov." They are ordinary mortals, often unaware of their station, and it is believed that if even one of them were missing, the sufferings of the world would poison the souls of all and mankind would perish. The "Lamed-Vov" are the hearts of the world multiplied, as all our grief is poured into one vessel. This dance is the history of one such Just Man.

The dancing itself is the high point of this piece. And again, as with the Bolshoi Ballet, the ensemble work is extraordinary. The dancers all seem to find the movement impetus in the same place, they all hear the same beat and react in similar ways. It is very powerful to watch separate groups of dancers moving in counterpoint, yet being part of the whole. Many times the choreography seems so dense it's almost overwhelming, though perhaps on a larger stage this wouldn't be noticed so much. Yet it also means that the choreography is successful in conveying the weight of the world. As the Just Man, Riedel is once more very compelling. The music, though solid, is not exceptional; the same with the costumes by Marion Williams and lighting design by Steve Woods.

I can only hope that the Limon Dance Company finds its way to San Francisco, or at least to Berkeley, more often, so that a wider audience can experience this slice of dance history so meticulously preserved and lovingly performed.

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