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Appalachian Summer Festival: Limón Dance Company

July 14, 2006 - Boone, NC:


The Appalachian Summer Festival at Appalachian State University is a four-week gem of a series growing amid the mighty geologic features of the High Country region. Mast General Store and Best Western – Blue Ridge Plaza in Boone sponsored the July 14 Limón Dance Company program. It was a memorable event and historic for several reasons: the company is in its 60th year of operation, the concert presented a chronological index of original and landmark works that immersed and reminded everyone of the art and marriage of fluid movement set to the greatest classical music repertoire, and it had never been done before. Oh, all these works had been performed, but not together on the same program. Given the scope of the works, it may not be done again!

Founded in 1946 by Jose Limón and Doris Humphrey, the company represented a specific genre of dance based on the body's relationship to gravity and the use of weight. It should be said early on that Limón, Humphrey, and Charles Weidman are all central to the second wave of influence and forward evolution of American modern dance during that era. In addition to the performance of original choreography and commission of new works, this company was the first to tour under the auspices of the American Cultural Exchange Program (1954) and the first dance troupe to perform at Lincoln Center (1963). It has appeared twice at the White House (1967 and 1995) and received an NEA Millennium Grant. It is a member of Dance/USA, Dance/NYC, the Dance Theater Workshop, the Arts & Business Council, and Arts4All. The 2006 performance season is supported by the NEA, the NY State Council on the Arts, the NYC Dept. of Cultural Affairs, the New England Foundation for the Arts, Time Warner, and Altria Group, Inc. You need very big chops to draw that kind of attention.

Twelve dancers and a technical crew of six directing local staff went to work in Farthing Auditorium adjacent the Hayes School of Music complex. ASF publishes an advance glossy, four-color, 110-page program book and then provides inserts for the specific events to announce changes. There were two personnel changes and one program change for a two-hour concert with two intermissions. There was so much information provided in the programs it took nearly every free moment to keep abreast. The list of composers alone could give flight: Antonin Dvorák, Ralph Gilbert, Franz Schubert, Alvarez Maciste, J.S. Bach, and Henry Purcell.... But once the dancers were on the stage, nearly everything took a distant place in the mind.

The works were not only engaging, panoramic and descriptive, but they were also historic and brilliantly presented. The first was "Evening Songs" (1987), using seven dancers and set to four songs by Dvorák, from Op. 29 and Op. 63. Then came "Etude," a solo work created by current Limón Artistic Director Carla Maxwell and first performed February 12, 2002, during the Winter Olympics at Ogden, Utah. Schubert's "Gretchen am Spinnrade" provided a fertile foundation for movement. Then came a solo titled "Dance in the Sun" (1951) set to Gilbert's jangled use of the highest and lowest piano octaves. The combination of a lone dancer and searching sounds from the piano was captivating.

Before the first intermission was the first program replacement: instead of Limón's 1942 "Chaconne," choreographed to J.S. Bach's famous violin solo, they performed "Angelitos Negros," a work for solo dancer. This is part of a dance suite titled Songs of the Disinherited, first performed by the Inner City Repertory Dance Company of Los Angeles in 1972. The music has lyrics, was sung in Spanish, and has a Latin/Mexican feel, especially in the horns.

Following the break was Limón's 1949 landmark "Moor's Pavane," legendary in dance circles for its descriptive interpretation of music and life's story. Set to Purcell, it is a four-movement work for two couples that loosely recalls Othello. It seeks to portray the tragedy of "Everyman." After another break came the final work, Suite from A Choreographic Offering. This is in seven movements using various combinations of the entire company and set to another landmark work, J.S. Bach's A Musical Offering. This is very high art created by masters and performed by virtuosos. It is so high both my ears and eyes hurt when this program was finished. I was exhausted.

Throughout these works is the common focus of a creative and masterful choreographer working with the musical phrase. Too often our experiences with modern dance do not respect this basic breath of time, this pulse of life, these moments of relaxation after tension. In these works is ample evidence of Limón's revelation on seeing his first dance concert in New York at the age of twenty. "What I saw simply and irrevocably changed my life. I saw the dance as a vision of ineffable power. A man could, with dignity and towering majesty, dance … as Michelangelo's visions dance and as the music of Bach dances." It is clear his vision is to join movement with the pulse of music, to use a wide variety of music, and to ensure they are joined with a common purpose of visual and aural excellence. This company succeeds in all those goals.

Talking with the company's Artistic Director Carla Maxwell afterward, I got the impression this particular program was an ad hoc trial run-out, a gig in the woods to try some programming ideas. I asked where the program would be playing next and she couldn't answer because she didn't know. It may not be done again.

If it is performed again, and I certainly hope it is, there is a wealth of history and a rich legacy of American modern dance to be experienced and enjoyed. The music alone is worth the ticket price.