José Arcadia Limón (1908-1972) is remembered as a pioneer of modern dance and choreography. He firmly established the importance of the male dancer in American modern dance through the heroes he created and the masculine movement style of his choreography for men.
Limón was born in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico. His father, a musician, conductor, and pedagogue, was a widower and father of three when he married 16-year-old Francisca Traslaviña. She bore him 11 children (and another three who died at birth), of which Limón was the eldest. His mother was a devout Catholic and raised the children accordingly.
The Mexican revolution wreaked havoc in Limón's young life; at the age of five he witnessed the death by gunshot of a young uncle. His father directed various military bands during this period, and the family had to move frequently, to Cananea, Hermosilla, Nogales, and finally across the border to Tucson, Arizona, when Limón was seven. His father worked in various Arizona cities as a musician and conductor and finally settled his family in Los Angeles, California, when Limón was 12. Due to an early humiliation with English, young Limón resolved to master the language, and he continued to develop his prodigious vocabulary throughout his life. He exhibited early talent as both a musician and a visual artist. In high school he was introduced to the glories of Western art, and at about the same time began to study piano.
When Limón was 18, his mother died in childbirth, a tragedy that drove him away from the Catholic Church and his father, both of which he blamed for this devastating loss. After high school he studied painting briefly at the University of California, and then, at the urging of three "bohemian" friends, he moved to New York City in 1928 to study at the Art Students League. There he soon became disillusioned by the painting classes, believing that his classmates and teachers were merely imitating the French moderns. His vision was more influenced by El Greco, but he despaired of ever equaling his idol. By chance he attended a dance performance by German Expressionist Harald Kreutzberg and Yvonne Georgi and knew immediately that he had to dance. He enrolled in classes at the Humphrey-Weidman School, where Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman became his artistic mentors. Pauline Lawrence, who had left Denishawn at the same time as Humphrey and Weidman, served as school registrar, tour manager, costume designer, stage manager, and accompanist for Humphrey-Weidman. These four lived communally for several years. Limón had become an earnest disciple of a revolutionary new art form, American modern dance. After very little training, he became a member of the company, performed in Broadway shows they choreographed, and began his own early choreographic efforts.
Limón's apprenticeship with Humphrey-Weidman lasted over 10 years, during which time he was increasingly featured in their concert work. His first choreographic efforts began early, and in 1930 he formed "The Little Group" with two women from the company, Eleanor King and Ernestine Henoch. The Humphrey-Weidman Company spent several summers at Bennington College, where Limón was named a Choreography Fellow in 1937. The following year he choreographed his first major work, Danzas Mexicanas, one of several dances he made that explored Mexican themes.
In 1940, disgusted with the triviality of commercialized Broadway dance, Limón left for the West Coast to form a duet company with former Graham dancer May O'Donnell and her husband, composer Ray Green. They developed a repertory with a commitment to contemporary American music and themes. World War II had begun in Europe, and Limón suspected he would soon be drafted. In 1941 he married Pauline Lawrence, and the following year returned to New York, disappointed with what he considered the provincialism of the San Francisco public.
In New York he resumed his association with Doris Humphrey, and created Chaconne in D Minor, a solo set to music by Johann Sebastian Bach, to be performed on an all-Bach program that Humphrey was producing. In April 1943, he was drafted. While in the army he was able to continue choreographing and performing in shows for the Special Services. On weekend leaves he began choreographing for a small company under Humphrey's artistic direction, which was a precursor of the José Limón Dance Company. With dancers Dorothy Bird and Beatrice Seckler, he created Vivaldi Concerto in D Minor, which premiered in 1945.
Humphrey had retired from dance due to a hip injury and ended her long association with Weidman; now she began to choreograph for the new company, with works that took advantage of her former protégé's exotic good looks and compelling stage presence. Among these works were Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, Story of Mankind, Day on Earth, Night Spell, Ritmo Jondo, and Ruins and Visions.
Limón invited Pauline Koner and Lucas Hoving to work with him and, returning to his Mexican heritage for inspiration, made La Malinche in 1949, with an original score by Norman Lloyd. The same year, with Hoving, Koner and Betty Jones, he created The Moor's Pavane, which John Martin, writing in the New York Times, called "a magnificent piece of dance theater … one of the major works in contemporary dance repertory." Based on the tragic story of Othello and set to music by Henry Purcell, this choreographic masterpiece has been continuously performed by ballet and modern dance companies worldwide.
In 1950 the Limón company performed in Mexico City, prompting an invitation to Limón to establish a school and company there. He created several new works for the Ballet Mexicano including El Grito, Quatros Soles, and Tonantzintla in 1951, but returned to his company in New York and a faculty position at the new Dance Department at the Juilliard School of Music, where he taught for the rest of his life.
The Limón company had been a chamber ensemble until this time, consisting of individual soloists, including Ruth Currier and Letitia Ide. His choreographic experience in Mexico and his work with Juilliard students now motivated him to explore the use of an ensemble. Working with a group of all male dancers, he created The Traitor (1954), Scherzo (1955) and The Emperor Jones (1956). He worked with a mixed ensemble in Symphony for Strings (1955), There Is a Time (1956), Missa Brevis (1958), A Choreographic Offering (1964), The Winged (1966) and Psalm (1967). In addition to these company works, he was creating dances almost every year for the student ensemble at Juilliard.
Limón was best known as a choreographer who made dance dramas, often based on literary or biblical themes. Hoving, lanky, blond and suave, was a striking contrast to Limón, who used him as a dramatic counterpart, particularly in The Moor's Pavane, Dialogues, The Traitor, and Emperor Jones. Tiny, quick, and dramatic, Pauline Koner was his partner in many works, and in others he used the sweetly lyric dancing of Betty Jones and Ruth Currier to represent feminine attributes. The womanly Letitia Ide had a weighted power that complemented his size. In later years he began to value greater technical virtuosity, in dancers such as Sarah Stackhouse, Jennifer Muller, Louis Falco, and Carla Maxwell, creating dances that challenged their skills while maintaining the breadth and weight of his original movement style.
Mexican themes recur throughout his work, from Danzas Mexicanas, La Malinche, Dialogues, Tonantzintla, and Los Quatros Soles to later works, The Unsung (1970) and Carlota (1972). Among his literary influences were William Shakespeare and Eugene O'Neill; religious themes appear in The Exiles, The Visitation, The Traitor, There Is a Time, and Missa Brevis, in which Limón's figure is set apart from the group, alternately appearing as a leader and a doubter.
Another important source of inspiration was the music of his favorite composers, resulting in pure movement pieces. These celebrations of the human spirit were made manifest through exultant dancing, intricate spatial designs, and sensitive musical phrasing. A Choreographic Offering (1964) is an outstanding example—dedicated to Doris Humphrey, its vocabulary is entirely derived from her choreography. Other notable works that were musically inspired include Chaconne in D Minor, Vivaldi Concerto in D Minor, Mazurkas (Chopin, 1958), and the unfinished Beethoven Sonatas, a full-evening work he began in 1970. He was also intrigued with silence, which he incorporated into There Is a Time and The Winged (1966), and then used in three of his last four pieces, The Unsung, the final section of Dances for Isadora, (1971) and Carlota.
Limón became a U.S. citizen in 1946 and a cultural ambassador for the government in 1954, when his company inaugurated the first State Department's Cultural Exchange Program with a tour of four South American cities. In 1957 the company was sent by the State Department on a five-month tour of Europe, including "Iron Curtain" countries Poland and Yugoslavia, which were overwhelmingly receptive. The company returned to South America in 1960, to the Far East in 1963, and to the Soviet Union in 1973 several months after Limón's death, all under State Department sponsorship. Limón was a guest at the Kennedy White House in 1962 and performed The Moor's Pavane at a White House state dinner in 1967 for Lyndon Johnson and his guest, King Hassan II of Morocco.
Limón was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1967. His wife, Pauline Lawrence Limón died of cancer in 1971, and Limón died a year later, on December 2, 1972. Upon Limón's death, Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Times: "As a man he was austere, grave and kindly. There was a courtliness to his every gesture, and he moved through the world like a prince. As a dancer he was an eagle. As a choreographer he was extremely gifted and fluent. He was never a particularly innovative artist, but possessed an innate understanding of that fusion of dance, drama and music that is the core of his work. He has left half a dozen ballets, at least, that should find a permanent place in the American repertory."
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