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José Limón is a name to conjure with in modern dance, and Triangle dance-goers recently had the rare opportunity to see the company that carries on his great work. Limón died in 1972, but The Limón Dance Company is radiantly alive and well. Even rarer was the chance the company's visit provided to see two versions of one of Limón's most famous works back to back. When they danced at Duke's Page Auditorium on February 17, The Limón Company ended their program with Limón's 1949 "The Moor's Pavanne: Variations on a theme of Othello," which also appears on the Carolina Ballet's current program.
The "Pavanne" utilizes only four dancers, and its structure depends on their interactions and the dance's power on the dancers' abilities to communicate emotions in movement. The Moor's role, of course, is the pivotal one in the tragedy: all revolves around his strength, his love, and the weakness that allows the worm of suspicion to feed on that love and lead him to murder. Limón originated the role; later it passed to Clay Taliaferro, who is now, at age 64, professor of dance at Duke University. Taliaferro returned to the stage on the 17th to dance the Moor with his former company.
It was a powerful performance, far more moving that the Carolina Ballet's had been the previous night . Much of the difference in the two versions derived, unsurprisingly, from the differences between a modern dance company and a ballet company. There is nothing in "The Moor's Pavanne" that is antithetical to ballet dancing, but much goes against the ways in which ballet dancers normally carry and balance themselves and execute their motions. The Limón dancers, more used to working with gravity than defying it, conveyed more clearly the weightiness of the characters' emotions, and much of the choreography made more sense with their open-chested postures and great swooping dips and reaches. They put so much heart into the dancing that there was no need to attempt to augment it with forced facial expressions.
Although I am sure this was not the best performance ever of "The Moor's Pavanne," as Taliaferro cannot any longer go down as far or up as high as he could in his youth, it well deserved the lengthy ovations it received. A lifetime of dancing has honed Taliaferro's natural advantages of long-limbed height and elegance of form. He can shake your soul by standing still, and even the tiniest gesture carries its full weight of meaning. I will long retain the image of this Moor as he struggles not to believe Iago's envious, poisonous, lies — his back to the audience, in a wide stance revealing his lengthy legs through the slits of his robe, the cords of muscle upholding that magnificent skull quivering with rage, and one enormous hand stretched heavenward in ferocious supplication. We owe him, Duke Dance, Duke Performances, and The Limón Company our thanks for giving us this tremendous swan song.
But the "Pavanne" was just the final treat in a delicious program. The evening opened with a new production of a suite from "A Choreographic Offering," which was originally presented during the 1964 American Dance Festival (then in Connecticut). Set to the glorious music of J.S. Bach's A Musical Offering, this work was made by Limón to honor the great modern dancer and choreographer Doris Humphrey, who had been both his teacher and his partner in founding the José Limón Company. It is a very inventive dance that paraphrases Humphrey's work while exhibiting an extreme sensitivity to the nature of the music and emphasizing its repeating pattern of tension and release as the dancers turn, twist, and twine — then uncoil and spring back into elegant extensions and swooping circles. The piece is bookended by thrilling dances for twelve, but the central solos, duets, and quintets are beautiful also. "Offering" is notable for its fine pattern-making, made especially good by the lovely intervals between the bodies, and for its truly ecstatic dancing.
Buffering the two classic works was "Recordare," a 2005 work by Lar Lubovitch created in collaboration with The Limón Company. Based on Mexican Day of the Dead pageants, it is a mordantly humorous play on our lifelong dance with Death. It was very entertaining, even though Death gets the last laugh. But Death does not get the last laugh, as long as there is art — and dancers to remember and pass the remembrance on, as they did so beautifully in "The Moor's Pavanne" and "A Choreographic Offering."