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Three masterworks made up the Jose Limón Dance Company program at Dance Celebration’s “Pioneers and Innovators” series— a perfect fit to coincide with the company’s centennial observance of the choreographer’s birth. Limón, born in Mexico, was one of the 20th Century’s most influential auteurs of modern classicism, fusing an eclectic variety of styles and dance techniques. Limón died in 1972 but left an artistic bounty that remains a valuable resource when it comes to building the complete modern dancer. His distinctive style came through with joy at the Zellerbach even in an erratically danced program.
Although the opening work— Suite From A Choreographic Offering— was truncated, it dragged on with skittish phrasing and knotty performance levels. The work is Limón’s homage to his mentor Doris Humphrey and it has the nuts-and-bolts, Bauhaus feel of a technique exposé. Scored to Bach, the Suite achieves stage pictures without decoration. One great moment: a female scaling a sculpted row of men with their heads bowed, then exiting by stepping on their necks.
But this full company piece, as danced, suffered from static pacing that underlined Limon’s angularity and repetition, an outdated style last in vogue in the ’60s. Flat phrasing led to unison lines that didn’t flow out freely, and also to static communal circles. The brittleness relaxed in the back half, when the ensemble’s gazelle leaps became more supple. The Fifth Movement duet, featuring Daniel Fetecua Soto and Roxane D’Orléans Juste, also sparked things up. This pair pulsed through the choreography with energy and flair.
Judas as a response to McCarthyism
By contrast, in The Traitor— Limón’s tableau of Judas’s betrayal of Jesus— the choreographic challenges were invisible. This rarely performed work displays Limon’s narrative movement vocabulary, as potent to modern dance as Petita was to classicism. Every gesture, step and movement is logical, expressive and connected in an active uninterrupted choreographic stream that tells a universal story.
Gray archway cutouts on a backdrop scrim provided the austere set of the drama, enacted by eight males costumed in muted color costumes that suggested religious paintings, albeit with a sketchy stage theatricality reminiscent of the ’50s. Indeed, Limón’s subtext was a response to the McCarthy witch-hunts of that era. Jonathan Fredrickson as the Jesus figure was imbued without being aloof, and Francisco Ruvalcaba as Judas expressed all the conflicting emotions of betrayal, rage, irony and doom.
A homoerotic subtext
The disciples are either moving the story along in acted gesture or fully engaged as a dance ensemble. Limón’s choreography explores male physicality and emotions in quickly established pugilistic dance sequences. He also subtly frames the story’s iconography, but keeps the religiosity enfolded naturally into the narrative. Such ripe moments as the disciples floating Fredrickson over them, or Ruvalcaba carrying Frederickson on his back with his arms outstretched, illustrate Limón’s symbolism and lyrical symmetry, without being overwrought.
Limón was always noted for redefining males in dance. At the time, some of that was unacknowledged homoerotic code. This subtext is most apparent in The Moor’s Pavane, a four-character retelling of Othello with four players for which Limon drew on pre-Shakespeare sources. The Moor’s friend might be whispering in his master’s ear, but the exchanges look a lot more intimate than the men’s exchanges with their wives. This quartet, moving to the stately music of Henry Purcell, had a few overly courtly missteps, but the acting was beautifully brought over with detailed conviction. Ruvalcaba, recovered from hanging himself as The Traitor, continued to command in an equally physically demanding performance as the Moor.
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