This week at Jacob's Pillow, a spectacular little reunion of ghosts
BECKET — With the appearances this week of the Limon Dance Company in Jacob's Pillow's Ted Shawn Theatre, the near-biblical lineage of the modern dance tree is enjoying a spectacular little reunion of ghosts. The program opens with a short film, from 1948, of the dancer/choreographer Jose Limon performing his 1942 solo "Chaconne" on the very same stage, while the portraits of Pillow founder Shawn and his wife/former dance partner Ruth St. Denis look on, respectively, from their house left and right sides of the stage. Before they drifted apart, these two, via their famed "Denishawn" school, had spawned many artistic progeny, many of whom did the same. Ted and Ruth, for example, begat Doris (Humphrey) and Charles (Weidman), who begat Limon.
In addition to some masterworks, Limon's most enduring bequest to the modern dance canon is his technique, which, like his early company, bears the imprint of Humphrey's influence. Her exploration of the ways the body could rise and fall and rise again with the use of breath is a major component of the organically rebounding momentum central to the Limon technique.
And yet, for all the historic importance of Limon, the flip side of the legacy coin is whether and how well these past masters and their works have aged. Wednesday night's performance was a great reward to those of us who care. The Limon company looks great.
The brevity and shakiness of that archival film is of no consequence: the effect of seeing Limon dancing on this stage, seventy years ago, is powerful and immediate. And then — the brilliance of this is breath-catching — mid-pique Limon's image is swept away as the video screen goes back up and below it is Mark Willis, in the same mid-pique moment, as if taking the relay from Limon through some magic time-portal and continuing the race; the pensive, elongated Willis eventually hands it off to the precise, bright-eyed Savannah Spratt and she hands it off to the magnanimous, sweeping Jesse Obremski. This reassignment of the solo from one to three was perhaps a risk — "Chaconne" was staged by current artistic director Colin Connor and former Limon associate Gary Masters — but one that pays off handsomely without negating the work's original impact as a solo.
There is little as thrilling as seeing a "museum piece" spring to such glorious life. A close second, however, is surely seeing such a "legacy" company take on new work, and successfully, as the Limon dancers do with Connor's 2016 "Corvidae" and Kate Weare's 2014 "Night Light."
"Corvidae" abstractly conjures the fey mannerisms of crows, without succumbing to absurd anthropomorphism. At times the cast's six black-clad dancers (costumes are by Connor and Keiko Voltaire) move across the stage in electric, darting bursts, sometimes in uncanny unison and sometimes in arresting variety; a motif in which one or more dancer pauses in hushed alertness is compelling. If the parts of "Corvidae" seem like tantalizing sketches, those of Weare's "Night Light" seem like full-realized stories that we're only being shown glimpses of. The 12 performers alternate between witnessing a duet or small group, to, in great chaotic contrast, being part of a kind of peculiar, kinetically-charged "scene." In other Weare works I've seen, I've been struck by both the robustness and clarity of her partnering, but also by the ambiguous mixture of aggression and intimacy. There is plenty of that duet work here too, much to try to catch and savor before it slips away.
Limon's 1949 "The Moor's Pavane" is rightly considered a masterpiece, but it's one of the trickier pieces to pull off. It was already, in its time, a "period piece," what with its setting — it's a distillation of Shakespeare's "Othello," and Pauline Lawrence's costumes involve heavy, rich Renaissance-like designs — and its score of excerpts by Baroque composer Henry Purcell. Carla Maxwell, the longtime Limon star and former artistic director who staged this production, avoids the potential melodrama. Thus, dramatically, the four — Willis as "The Moor" (Othello); Brenna Monroe-Cook as his "Wife" (Desdemona); Obremski as "His Friend" (Iago) and Logan Frances Kruger as his friend's "Wife" (Emilia) — are in tune. Each convey their characters' thoughts and emotions with theatrical clarity but without slipping into theatrical affectation. In particular, Willis is wretchedly tragic in his misguided rage, while Monroe-Cook is heartbreaking in her innocent bewilderment. Still, although it was only very occasionally, the few moments in which the dance slightly faltered brought us out of the story for a tiny but expensive moment. For this kind of stylized high dance drama to absolutely work, the dance has to be spotless. It was nearly that, and that's saying a lot.
The closer, the 1964 "(Suite from) A Choreographic Offering," has also been lovingly staged by another Limon alum, Kurt Douglas, with a light touch perfect for Limon's beautiful homage to Humphrey. Set to J.S. Bach's "A Musical Offering," the dance is a long summer's day infused with both earth and sky. The grounded down! of a step is followed by a couple of up! up! steps; dancers' bodies swing and swoop, pendulum-like, from one side to the other. Monroe-Cook is luminous in her melancholy solo, in which she seems to be led hither and thither, to the floor and up again, by her rounded, fifth position arms. (The few frozen grins aside) the ensemble is sunny, breezy, contented. Limon's work has often been noted for its sense of community, its humanity: qualities that surely never go out of fashion.
Janine Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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