The Ensemble as Star
Songs/Chaconne/Dance in the Sun/Phantasy Quintet/Psalm
Among the many distinctive aspects of a Limón Company performance is the true sense of ensemble the current troupe evidences. They perform with a cohesiveness and sense of shared purpose, and with an unaffected openness that commands but never insists on one's attention. Quite a few of the José Limón and Doris Humphrey works in the repertory are large-scale, substantial ensemble works that create a throbbing pulse of community within their architecture and dynamism. Through learning and performing these works together, the dancers have an opportunity to develop a connective tissue within their ensemble.
When the Limón company last performed in New York, the repertory included Humphrey's seminal "Variations and Conclusion" from "New Dance," in which a community seems to take shape and assert its moral force, its ability to transcend pettiness, before our eyes. That work is not being presented this time around (it's a season without any Humphrey works at all), but the company did bring back the new version of Limón's "Psalm," a full-company work whose reconstruction artistic director Carla Maxwell lovingly oversaw in 2002. It is a rich, rigorous work, one in which the surging onslaught of ensemble movement makes an indelible, riveting statement.
When it was first performed in 1967, "Psalm" was set to an original score by Eugene Lester. Ms. Maxwell's major restaging uses a new commissioned score by Jon Magnussen for baritone soloist, vocal ensemble and orchestra that rings with pantheistic fervor. It incorporates a Latin text, and spans a wide emotional range, from eerie whispered sections to powerfully assertive propulsive rhythms. The music has a nobility and grandeur that match the dance.
One can find a kinship between "Psalm" and "Missa Brevis," an earlier Limón work in which a solo male figure is set within and against a potent communal pull. In "Psalm," the solo figure (Robert Regala on this occasion; Louis Falco originated the role) is identified as "The Just Man," as Limón was inspired by an ancient Jewish tradition that says that all the sorrows of the world are borne by 36 "just men"—ordinary men who carry out this mission without necessarily being aware, but whose role is crucial to the well-being, even the survival, of the larger community.
With its layering of sub-groups within the larger ensemble, its insistent rhythmic flow and the distillation of profound emotions within a stage picture that avoids all sentimentality, "Psalm" is newly revealed as a major Limón work. As the figure who suffers without understanding but with a sense of mission, Mr. Regala, a slight, wiry but markedly intense dancer, offers a strong counterpoint to the propulsive group configurations. There is much to admire (and for choreographers to learn from) in this work; it exemplifies Limón's mastery of craftsmanship, his weaving of recurring motifs into the larger ongoing fabric of the dance, his gift for making purely abstract movement speak profoundly and invite deep thought.
The intriguing costumes, made of charcoal grey stretchy fabric with a few small accents of red, indigo and green, evoke no time or place, but they do heighten the sober and ritualistic feel of the dance. The rest of the program was clothed in white and/or black, and cumulatively made for a sober yet enriching evening.
It opened with a brief yet resonant middle-period Jirí Kyliàn work, "Evening Songs," from1987. Quite different from the clinical, almost antiseptic recent works the Nederlands Dans Theater performed in New York last spring, it is form a time when Kylian's choreography shared some of the surging impulse of the Humphrey-Limon tradition. But his precise meticulousness is also very much in evidence, as four women and three men progressed through sharply accented passages, their bodies forming complementary patterns and contrasting shapes. Their were many striking moments, but one also could feel Mr. Kyliàn's intensely controlling hand, with every position having to be just so, right from the moment the curtain rose on three women posed in silhouette, holding open the skirts of their simple summer dresses.
Two contrasting solos from the mid-20th-century served as a reminder of that aspect of the fertile years of American modern dance, when the choreographers would often create enduring and significant solos for themselves. Limón's 1942 "Chaconne," to the well-known movement from Bach's Partita #2 for solo violin is a stern, quietly compelling piece, given an intriguing spin on this occasion since it was performed by a woman, Roxanne D'Orleans Juste. In simple but quietly elegant black shirt and pants, her hair severely pulled back, she evoked a female matador. There is no evident message here, just a personal and vivid response to a great score. The choreography is severe, restricted in its range, but within those restrictions Limon found a dignified eloquence. Ms. D'Orleans Juste's performed was powerful but perhaps a touch too respectful and careful—and necessarily she could not begin to suggest the kind of coiled power Limón himself must have given it.
Daniel Nagrin's 1951 "Dance in the Sun" is a new addition to the company's repertoire, but it fits right in—and almost looks as though it might have been choreographed and performed by Limon. One associates Nagrin with restless, wary urban figures more at home in the darkness, amid a sense of danger, but in this solo he created a portrait of a man strolling into an open space, glorying in the warmth of the midday sun and expressing his (perhaps momentary) sense of freedom and delight. Raphael Boumaila gave a beautifully calibrated performance, alternating between moments of reflection and jubilation, and launching into the bold, surprising arcing jumps with spontaneous ease, as though the dance was just occurring to him. David LaMarche played the robust, annunciatory piano score by Ralph Gilbert.
The most recent work on the program, Adam Hoagland's "Phantasy Quintet," created for the company in 2002, was its most playful and freewheeling. An ode to romance set to an invigorating string quintet by Ralph Vaughan Williams, it evoked a springtime mood of relaxed, playful abandon. Three men and two women formed the sprightly, energetic chorus that framed a more grounded couple, Brenna Monroe-Cook and Francisco Ruvalcaba. All wore gleaming white— the men were shirtless in flowing white pants, the women wore a puzzling combination of sports bra and long, full skirts. Mr. Hoagland, a former company member, is clearly channeling the breath-propelled rise and fall of the Humphrey-Limón tradition, but his work has an unaffected clarity and musical sensitivity that made it engaging and resonant.
In addition to the powerful ensemble effect, the company features many dancers who standout as striking individuals when it is appropriate. On both of this season's programs, Kristen Foote's bold, eager and warm performing was a highlight. Ms. Monroe-Cook moves with rich juiciness and invigorating boldness, and Kurt Douglas, with his electric energy and intensity, is always a delight to watch.