Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Jose Limon: Movement Larger Than Life

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Jose Limon: Movement Larger Than Life

Article excerpt

IN 1928 JOSE LIMON HITCHHIKED FROM LOS ANGELES TO NEW YORK, DETERMINED TO MAKE HIS MARK AS A PAINTER. HIS DISILLUSION UPON SEEING HIS PEERS IMITATING THE FRENCH POST-IMPRESSIONISTS WAS COMPOUNDED BY A CONVICTION THAT EL GRECO HAD, LONG AGO, SAID IT ALL. BUT DASHED HOPES PRECIPITATED A FORTUNATE CAREER CHANGE; LIMON DEVELOPED NONETHELESS INTO AN ARTIST, WHO, TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AFTER HIS DEATH, IS STILL CONSIDERED BY MANY THE GREATEST PERFORMER IN THE HISTORY OF MODERN DANCE. AND HIS LEGACY DOES NOT STOP THERE. THE TECHNIQUE HE INHERITED AND ENHANCED IS A CORNERSTONE OF TODAY'S IDIOM. HIS MASTERPIECES SURVIVE AS CLASSICS IN THE CONTEMPORARY REPERTOIRE. RECENTLY, BALLET SUPERSTAR MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV ACQUIRED THE 1942 COMPOSITION "CHACONNE," BASED ON A DANCE FROM COLONIAL MEXICO AND SET TO BACH'S "SONATA IN B MINOR." MOST IMPORTANTLY, THE LIMON FOUNDATION IS THRIVING: THE INSTITUTE TRAINS NEW GENERATIONS OF DANCERS, AND THE JOSE LIMON AMERICAN DANCE COMPANY THIS YEAR CELEBRATED THE GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY OF ITS NEW YORK DEBUT ON JANUARY 5, 1947.

Limon's lasting impression is also stamped on our image of the male dancer. There was a time when the world of dance was as sexist as that of business, only in reverse, mainly populated by ballerinas, chorines, and the "boys" who supported them. Limon was, in contrast, adult manhood at its finest, a perfect mix of power and grace, tall and classically proportioned, in the Greek sense rather than the balletic--not to mention the Indian cheekbones, the rugged jawline. If, as some say, El Greco might have painted him in later life, the young Limon could have been the model for French sculptor Auguste Rodin's Penseur. Words wore into cliches as the critics groped to describe a phenomenon who not only looked like a grown man but danced like one, and invariably they resorted to superlatives. "There is no other male dancer within even comparing distance of him," said the New York Times in 1944, and the point is constantly repeated: "A dancer without peer in his generation of male dancers," "the major male modern dancer-choreographer," "the first male dancer of our era."

Perhaps a woman, dance critic Deborah Jowitt, caught Limon's macho charisma when she compared him to "a magnificent bull," comprehending that he was structurally engineered to dance from his powerful shoulders. This upper body emphasis exploited the center of male strength, rather than the legs, as in ballet, where women have an advantage. Limon displayed male bravura in leading roles as well as then-unheard-of duets of two opposites--Othello and Iago, Judas and Christ. As his creativity unfolded, he remained modest. "I view myself," he said, "as a disciple and follower of Isadora Duncan and the American impetus as exemplified by Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham."

Limon in fact began life as a Mexican and remained one well into his stardom. He was born in Culiacan, Sinaloa, in 1908, the first son of a band leader and his teenaged second wife. Rather than subject his family to the hardships of the Mexican Revolution, the elder Limon found work in Tucson, Arizona, where, when they joined him, Jose Arcadio Limon enrolled in first grade without a word of English. Eventually, they all settled into Los Angeles. If they experienced discrimination, Limon did not dwell on it. The handsome face looking out of his high school yearbook belonged instead to a youth caught in a generational clash. His parents had been middle-class in Mexico, but fumes were tough in California and the family was living out the Depression on his father's earnings from private music lessons. Understandably, they wanted something better for their son. To please them, he entered UCLA, but dropped out when his mother died, worn out by too many pregnancies. His outrage at his father appears to have been tempered by sudden responsibility for his younger siblings. Once the family stabilized, young Limon headed East.

Dance lore has it that Limon needed coaxing to attend the concert where Harald Kreutzberg's riveting performance persuaded him to become a dancer and enroll in the Humphrey-Weidman School. …

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