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Legacy of José Limón

By February 11, 2021February 23rd, 2021No Comments
José Limón (1908-1972) electrified the world with his dynamic masculine dancing and dramatic choreography. One of the 20th century’s most important and influential dance makers, he spent his entire career pioneering a new art form and fighting for the recognition and establishment of the American Modern Dance. Boron in Culiacan, Mexico in 1908, he immigrated to California in 1915, and in 1928 Limón came to New York and saw his first dance program. Limón enrolled in the dance school of Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman and, form 1930-1940, performed in works created by his teachers. In 1946, with Doris Humphrey as Artistic Director, Limón formed his own company. Over the following 25 years, he established himself and his company as one of the major forces of 20th century dance. Limón was a key faculty member in the Julliard School’s Dance Division beginning in 1953 and continue choreographing until his death in 1972. Limón choreographed a total of seventy-four works, including The Moor’s Pavane, Missa Brevis, There is a Time, The Traitor, and Psalm.

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Verb Ballets is honored to stage José Limón’ Dances for Isadora this season. The work received its first performance 50 years ago at the Cleveland Museum of Art andthe company is honored to bring it back to Cleveland. Natalie Desch was a dancer with the Limón Dance Company and spent eleven seasons with Doug Varone and Dancers. She was the reconstructor for Dances for Isadora on the women of the company streaming in from Utah via Zoom. We talked with her about the deep meaning behind this work.

Photos: Kolman Rosenberg

Interview with Natalie Desch

The piece was choreographed in 1971 What makes it a classic?
I have an admitted bias for Limón’s work, so my answer comes from a very specific perspective! I’ve had the privilege of learning about him for nearly thirty years– directly from those with whom he worked and from dancing his works first hand. Limón was a consummate formalist in his choreographic design and is especially revered for the magical ways he married musical scores with movement. Dances for Isadora is quite a poetic example of this. Limón captures five distinct eras of Isadora Duncan’s life using an array of piano pieces by Frederic Chopin as well as choosing to leave one solo in silence. These solos display the inherently strong rhythms found in the movement. Through the work, he sculpts both the
subtle gestures and the bold physicality of Duncan’s very short-lived but complex life.

Which roles have you danced?
I have danced the solo entitled Niobe which was taught to me by Limón company members as part of the audition process when I joined the Limón Company in 1996. It has a  special place in my heart because of that. I believe it also has such relevance in 2021 as it speaks to the sadness and loss many people are experiencing as a result of the pandemic. In a tragic chapter of Isadora’s life, Duncan not only lost two young children in an automobile accident when they drowned in Paris’ River Seine (1913) but also lost a child (1914) who didn’t survive infancy. Niobe shares the tender tones of a mother’s grief for the loss of her children and the existential questions that arise when lives are lost.

In restaging this work what do you hope to pass on?
Well, I’m somewhat obsessed with the concept of time, and I love the study of history. So I find it thrilling that in 2021, a wonderful group of artists can assemble to embody important chapters of the past. But this doesn’t just mean investigating the trailblazing woman, Isadora Duncan, (1877-1927) who the choreographer, José Limón, (1908-1972) held with such high regard. Yes, we are studying the stages of an individual’s (Duncan’s) life, but we are also studying the philosophies, the zeitgeist of her time, and what personally made her such a visionary––she made seismic shifts in the aesthetics of dance in America and around the world. As well, we have such an opportunity to embody her convictions and her accomplishments through the lens of Limón’s vision of choreography from the year 1971 when he created it. That includes all the personal, political, societal, and aesthetic considerations in existence for him, his dancers, and the greater community at that time as well. It’s a rich opportunity to investigate these chapters of history and how they might also relate to the time in which we presently exist and grapple with the issues in front of us.

How would you describe each of the solos?

Primavera – This solo is an exuberant celebration of youth and self-discovery. Primavera shows both a vivacious brightness in an allegro section as well as a thoughtful lyricism in its second section.

Maenad – This solo shows a most sensual side of femininity. With a grounded and strident physicality, we see a character with confidence in her wakening sexuality and sense of self.

Niobe – This solo is a lament––like a mother’s prayer for the loss of her children––sparse and grieving.

La Patrie – This solo is a nod to Duncan’s voice on social and political issues. As a feminist at the dawn of the 20th century, we see her asserting her power and her open-minded beliefs in women’s’ and individuals’ rights and equities.

Scarf Dance – This solo is an enigmatic, dreamscape-like chronicle of a life. Its character is briefly revisited by ghosts of prior personalities who help tell this final chapter of life. The dramatic complexities of Isadora are apparent, and her accidental death, when the scarf she was wearing became entangled in the wheels of an automobile, are both abstract and haunting.

What strengths do the women of Verb bring to the piece?
The artists of Verb possess such incredible depths of understanding when it comes to the subtleties of this work. To put their talents and abilities into perspective, however, some context about process has to be shared. Because of COVID-19 and travel restrictions, I had the unprecedented limitation of NOT being directly in the studio with the dancers as I taught the work. I really doubted whether a Zoom call could reveal the detail and nuance this work requires. However, any anxieties I had about this process were quickly assuaged by the talent and work ethic that were immediately evident! Not only do these women possess virtuosic technique and a mastery of skill in their bodies, but their imaginations and their artistic maturity was pronounced as well. Each woman learned all five of the solos (no easy feat!) and each dancer gave an outstanding and completely unique iteration of each of the chapters of the Duncan story. The women of Verb are a formidable group with the strengths of sensitivity, power, musicality, and theatricality.

Natalie Desch

Natalie Desch, a BFA graduate of the Juilliard School and an MFA graduate of the University of Washington, performed for five seasons with the Limón Dance Company and eleven seasons with Doug Varone and Dancers in NYC. During that time, she also danced in various productions at the Metropolitan Opera and other regional opera companies––Minnesota Opera, Opera Colorado, Palm Beach Opera, Longleaf Opera (NC), Lincoln Center Institute (NYC). From 2005-2012 she taught at Hunter College (City University of New York) and has also been a visiting faculty member at Weber State University (UT), the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and the Beijing Dance Academy. She additionally has taught for the following summer residencies or festivals: Doug Varone and Dancers, the Limón Dance Company, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, Utah Ballet Summer Intensive, UNCSA, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, the Bates Dance Festival, and the Canadian Contemporary Dance Theater, among others. Natalie has restaged the works of Daniel Charon, Jirí Kylián, José Limón, and Doug Varone on dance and opera companies around the world, and her choreography has been presented at venues throughout the US. From 2014-2019 Natalie was on faculty at Utah Valley University and Westminster College, and she continues to teach at Ballet West Academy in SLC. Natalie is grateful to have joined and been working with the University of Utah’s School of Dance as an Assistant Professor since the fall of 2019.

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