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Limón and Jazz: The Limón Dance Company at the 2002 Cultural Olympiad
By Karen Webb

This article was first published in the Ogden Standard-Examiner on February 8, 2002, as a preview of the Limón Dance Company's Limon and Jazz concert at the Val Browning Center for the Performing Arts (February 13-14).

Modern dance pioneer José Limón once summed up his attitude toward his art this way. "The dance offers you a vision of your humanity: ennobled, winged, soaring." When the Limón Dance Company presented Limón and Jazz, the Cultural Olympiad's sole dance event in an Ogden venue, audiences got the opportunity to see just what he meant.

"He was such a visionary," observed long-time Limón dancer and company artistic director Carla Maxwell. "He was a warrior in the most ancient sense of the word. He was schooled in art as well as music and dance; his father was a pianist. I still remember the way that, when he was alive, whenever he found a piano in a spot where we were touring, he would sit down and start picking out Bach fugues."

Limón, who was actually born in Mexico, started out to pursue a career as a visual artist. Smitten with modern dance when he first saw it performed when he came to New York as a student, he shifted gears and worked with seminal American modern dancers Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman.

"You can still see the sense of art in his work, though," continued Maxwell. "The transitions within his pieces are almost cinematic. Of all of the great modern dance choreographers this country has produced, his works feature the most virtuosic ensemble dancing. He felt that solo work couldn't emerge without the community of ensemble dancers to support it. He did a lot of work with what he called the 'collective individual.'"

Limón and Jazz was a program Maxwell hit on several years ago, her logic being that modern dance and jazz music are this country's only two true indigenous art forms. Within the context of a triple bill, she commissioned two works, one by company artistic mentor Donald McKayle and one by Billy Siegenfeld. McKayle's Cross Roads is choreographed to the music of jazz flautist James Newton; Siegenfeld's If Winter uses a series of diverse jazz classics, including works by Miles Davis and vocalist Patricia Barber.

Of special significance to Ogden audiences, though, was the third piece on the bill. Maxwell's original vision for this program included the recreation of a Limón masterwork. Prior to this, the company had presented Limón 's classic, The Moor's Pavane, and There is a Time. Premiering as part of the Cultural Olympiad was Psalm, one of Limón 's last works and arguably one of his most powerful.

"Because José was such a private person," recalled Maxwell, "we didn't know this at the time he was choreographing Psalm in 1967, but he had just been diagnosed with prostatic cancer. He may have thought this would be his final work, so he poured himself into the content and really packed it. I've had dancers who were learning it come up to me crying, 'Doesn't anything repeat?' It's almost as if he were treading the brink between genius and madness."

Limón finally succumbed to his illness in 1972.

Limón's inspiration for Psalm, said Maxwell, came from a book by Andre Schwartz-Bart called The Last of the Just that uses as its inspiration the ancient Jewish tradition of the Lamed-Vov. According to the legend, there are at any given time 36 "Just Ones" on earth who take to themselves the suffering of the world; were it not for their sacrifice in assuming this suffering, the world would be so poisoned it would cease to exist. To honor their suffering, which may be so great it immures them to the joys of Paradise when they leave this world, God periodically "turns back the clock" and delays the Day of Judgment.

"The Just Ones," noted Maxwell, "may not even be aware of their station. José took this legend and wove from it a dance about the evocation of the heroic power of the human spirit."

"I think in modern dance there's been a tendency to think of dance that uses emotionality or speaks to the human spirit as old-fashioned, as dated. A lot of the post-modernist movement emerged as a reaction to this style that characterizes the works of choreographers like José and Martha Graham so dance became about structural concepts, about motion alone rather than motion to express 'e'-motion."

"I disagree, of course. I think that humanity is what makes the work of choreographers like Limón true art. And, really, since September 11, there have been so many benefit performances in the area that show how hungry the people are for that sense of spirituality in art."

The Music

José Limón originally hoped to acquire the rights to Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms to use for Psalm. When that proved a little too pricey, he rethought his approach. According to Maxwell, he set the piece "banging out the rhythms on a metal chair." The original score, by Eugene Lester, was composed after the dance had been set.

For the Ogden premiere of the reworked Psalm, Maxwell commissioned composer Jon Magnussen, who had previously provided a new score for Limón's The Winged. Magnussen had been in town rehearsing local singers and musicians, including the Kay Starr Singers and singers from Weber State University (WSU).

Magnussen's enthusiasm for his work is infectious. If someone listening to him explain his work had never heard a beat of music and didn't know a polyrhythm from a polynomial, still he would hear Magnussen's creation in his mind's ear.

"A-le-luuuuuuu-ia, Lau-de-teeeeeee," he thrummed out, conducting himself as he went, to demonstrate the rhythmic complexity of the piece. "One of the most difficult things about the music," he noted, "is that the singers are frequently speaking in rhythm rather than singing, and it's not a consistent 1-2-3-4 kind of rhythm, but what we refer to as polyrhythms – complex rhythms where each different voice may be doing a different thing."

Magnussen's process was kind of the inverse of what many choreographers do. Where a choreographer who bases his work on music may "see" the steps happening as he hears the music, Magnussen had to watch tapes of Psalm in silence and "hear" the way he wanted the music to go.

"José is one of the most musical choreographers I've ever seen," said Magnussen. "When you watch the movements the individual dancers do or the patterns they make on the floor, they're beautiful. Within them, you see musical structures like canon or triplets. One of the big decisions I had to make while I was composing this piece was, when did I want to fit the music exactly to the dance steps Limón had created, and when did I want to compose so the music went consciously against the movement, so the movement and music worked antiphonally."

Magnussen also echoed Maxwell's observation that Psalm struck him as a case of Limón treading that thin edge between genius and madness.

Magnussen made technology his friend during this process. He was able to digitize the videos Maxwell sent him; then, using a computer, he was able to sketch in his musical ideas so they matched the movement exactly as he wanted to fit the two together. The first CD he cranked out for the Limón dancers featured him singing or thrumming out all of the voice parts ("mainly four parts," he explained, "but in places as many as eight") plus a rough working of the instrumental parts he generated using his keyboard.

Magnussen and Maxwell worked back and forth for a bit, Maxwell paring and reshaping parts of the dance and Magnussen fitting his music to her choreographic vision. Lester's original score featured instrumental music alone. When Magnussen envisioned chorus and instruments together, he pulled the Latin text from seven psalms from the Bible's "Book of Psalms" – Latin because he used the Vulgate text rather than the Hebrew.

"One of the biggest challenges for us was what to do with the finale," he recalled. "The finale is preceded by a brief solo, but before the solo comes "The Running Dance," the section of Psalm that is often excerpted. It is a very vigorous section, and the music I wrote for it ends with the percussionist playing both the tympani and other percussion with the chorus singing high in everyone's register at the top of their voices. But that doesn't end the piece, so what I had to think of was where to go from there?"

His solution was to go to the other end of the volume continuum: although the dance continues at a quick pace, he mutes the music so it ends quietly, spinning off into the silent distance as the dance draws to a close.

The two performances in Ogden were the only ones slated to be performed on this tour with live music. Magnussen, though, anticipated that it will not be the last live performance of his work. "I think as they hear it, other communities will also want to find a way to produce it live."

A Case Study in Getting into the Olympiad

Unlike the works presented by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Pilobolus Dance Theater, Limón and Jazz and the reworking of Psalm were not commissioned for the Olympiad. Although Magnussen had been devoting time to serious development of the score since last October, Maxwell first approached him about re-scoring Psalm in March of 2000 at just about the time Diane Stern, Executive Director of Cultural Affairs for WSU, was seeking to schedule groups for the school's 2001-2002 season.

"I remember sitting in the theatre in New York and previewing seven or eight groups with a bunch of other presenters," she recalled. "There were big names in the post-modernist movement, names like Trisha Brown and Pilobolus, Twyla Tharp and Séan Curran. But when we saw the Limón Company perform and what we saw was really just a little snippet of Psalm performed to one of those early CDs with Jon singing all the voices, we were all so riveted that, when they finished, for a moment no one applauded. I looked around to see tears in people's eyes. People were just so awestruck at what they had seen that they just couldn't respond."

So the Limón Company got scheduled for this season. Stern, about whose support Maxwell could not say enough, also hoped to move her office in the direction of not only presenting great art but helping to create it. At the time Maxwell was getting her restaging of Psalm underway, Stern had some monies she hoped to commit to underwrite the commission of the new score. After some initial setbacks with funding, the Office of Cultural Affairs ended up contributing roughly one-fourth of the monies needed to commission Magnussen to write the new score.

Enter the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC), who was hoping to woo Stern's office as a venue with the companies it was already booking.

"When I explained what we had already done in terms of booking the Limón Dance Company," said Stern, "SLOC embraced the idea: they were happy to include this project as a part of the Cultural Olympiad. Unfortunately, they had already committed their funds, so while they embraced it, they could not contribute to the funding."

It turned out that not only were funds committed elsewhere, so were amenities. Like hotel rooms.

"We had to handle housing the dancers," Stern continued, "by placing them in homes in the area. In fact, I ran through most of the small number of comp tickets SLOC released to us by offering them to the families who were hosting the dancers, as a way of saying 'thank you.'"

And it turned out that Magnussen, in pursuit of a fuller sound for his vocal ensemble, had to request the participation of some of the New York area singers who performed for the studio recording.

Was the project worth the challenges Stern has encountered? Her answer was an unequivocal "Yes!" "The quality of a project like this is what makes it worth all the time and effort. It's something that the people who come out to see will never, ever forget; it will have that sort of impact."

 

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Edited by Malcolm Tay.

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