Amazing feet

It took bare feet and a lot of guts. Since its inception in the early 20th century, the modern dance movement has made its mark as a rebellion staged against classical dancing, against all the corps of dancers who perform in unison en pointe, with flowing arms, long, extended legs and airborne movement. Modern dancers were not afraid to employ movements and gestures that some found ugly.

Invented and developed in America, many of modern dance’s choreographers were its best dancers, such as Martha Graham, Charles Weidman and Isadora Duncan, who saw themselves as communicators who turned toward more equality between men and women and the expression of social and human issues. On stage, José Limón was the “everyman” — he looked powerful and sank deep into the floor, his arms and broad chest inhabiting space with muscular, weighted motion, harnessing a need for a vocabulary that could, through movement, express real-life issues.

This weekend, University Musical Society brings the José Limón Dance Company to Ann Arbor’s Power Center. Under the artistic direction of Carla Maxwell, a former company dancer, the group performs works from a repertoire that has altered the shape of modern dance.

In the early days of professional dance troupes in America, when a choreographer or director died or retired, so did the company. But Maxwell says the José Limón Dance Company “was the first company to survive their founding director.” Limón died 33 years ago, and the New York City-based company is still going strong six decades after its formation in 1947. Since then, other companies, such as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, have followed suit.

“We never stopped business,” Maxwell says. “There was a long period of struggle to define who we would be — not wanting to disband — and questioning what José left for us.” The three different programs this weekend feature original works that Limón choreographed while under the influence of his mentor, pioneer Doris Humphrey, as well as dances from a varied repertoire that Maxwell says reflect Limón’s vision.

“José was born in Mexico,” Maxwell says. “He was marked as an outsider in the American culture. His technique was to look at theatrical dance as a conveyer of emotion and his own personal sources. He wanted each performance to be unique and in his own voice.”

Like a great musician uniquely interpreting a concerto, Maxwell explains, “Limón would retain the steps but inject his performances with his own personality.” This vision — as if the dancer is singing the music — is extant in the current company.

Limón made works that featured disinherited or flawed heroes, such as his undeniable masterpiece The Moor’s Pavane, based on Shakespeare’s Othello, in which four dancers weave an emotional tapestry of jealousy, betrayal, revenge and death. His work The Traitor, which is a commentary on the McCarthy era and the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg convictions, is set in biblical times, with Christ and Judas as leading figures, imbuing a modern situation with the ancient theme of betrayal.

Limón’s current company carries a tradition of social commentary with such works as Lar Lubovitch’s Recordare, based on the Day of the Dead, and Jiri Kylián’s Evening Songs, set to Dvorak’s Songs of the Disinherited. Maxwell says, “For the audiences, this will be a very rich treat — they will see treasures of American dance and dance literature, great classics before their eyes.”


Works by Limón and others at 8 p.m., Friday, Jan. 13, and 2 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 15, with a kid-friendly performance at 1 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 14, at the Power Center, Burton Memorial Tower, 881 N. University Ave., Ann Arbor; 734-764-2538.

Michael H. Margolin writes about the performing arts and will never forget seeing Limón’s The Moor at Ford Auditorium with the DSO. Send comments to [email protected]
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