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DANCE REVIEW: From Mardi Gras to Mourners’ Kaddish at Jacob’s Pillow

Two companies, Music From The Sole and the Jose Limón Company, deeply reflect both celebration and loss.

In performances by Music From The Sole on the outdoor Leir Stage and by Limón Dance Company in the Ted Shawn Theater at Jacob’s Pillow, heartfelt music and dance joined in profoundly affecting sequence, with eerie coincidence in music, story, and emotion.

Whitney Balliet, the renowned New Yorker jazz critic, characterized jazz as “the sound of surprise”.  Tap dance is inextricably linked to jazz as an improvisatory art, even in choreographed ensembles as iconic as Dorrance Dance, in which Leonardo Sandoval, co-founder of Music From The Sole, unexpectedly got his promotion while he was a summer fellow at the Pillow in 2014.

Introducing Music From The Sole, Jacob’s Pillow President and Artistic Director Pamela Tatge noted that this performance, called I Didn’t Come Here to Stay, was developed in residency here by dancers and musicians working together in the spirit of Carnival, “a spirit,” she exclaimed, “which we need!”

The audience entered the Leir outdoor performance area as the sun drifted westward, and longer and longer shadows were cast on the stage.  To the music “Banho De Folhos” and “Antes de Tudo” by the Afro-Brazlian singers Luedji Luna and Liniker, we viewed at the left side of the stage a standup bass, cello, flute and two guitars and at the right a keyboard and trap set with vocal mikes for everyone.

Then, after a minute’s silence, we heard in the distance a repeated, pentatonic chant (imagine a melody composed of the sounds you hear when you press the black keys one by one on the piano). Accompanied by snare drum and tom-tom, growing louder and closer as they emerged behind the surprised audience, the performers paraded and danced down the center aisle, recreating a lively Rio street scene during Carnival.

Evoking in their set piece the post-Lenten Brazilian festival of song and dance, these multitalented performers not only tap danced and played their assigned instruments with expertise, but they sang (in Portuguese), individually and together, supporting choreographed stories that evinced deep perceptions of human experience. Even as their instrumental and vocal improvising displayed strong jazz chops, their virtuosity was subordinated to honest expression, not to showing off.

Members of the company are a rainbow of distinctive individuals, in many shapes, sizes and colors– each dressed as they preferred, creating music on the spot – rooted in the blues and grounded in propulsive, toe-tapping rhythms, with anticipations and suspensions redolent of African dance traditions, where movement and music are inseparable.

Music From The Sole. Drawing by Carolyn Newberger

Once onstage, as the singing continued, the snare drum lay down a martial beat, joined by guitar and bass, to an F-major medium tempo blues with underlying, repetitive four-one accents.  Lucas Santana and Roxy King set the tap standard with devastating swing.  Then Santana, solo, over a slowed tempo, performed dazzling double- and triple-time rhythmic variations.  The musicians formed a vivid jazz sextet on percussion, cello, flute, guitar and piano as the rest of the troupe filed in and joined the stage, building layered cross rhythms with claps, taps, and thigh slaps.

Over the course of the performance, Music From the Sole, as befitting Carnival, treated the audience to a cornucopia of moods and variations, from the boisterousness of a stage full of Lindy Hop to meditative solos and ensembles.

In one sequence, as the music and rhythm quieted, a vocal trio sang in English the repeated assertion, “We are Love,” followed by a vocal quintet singing in Portuguese in tight harmony.  The flutist switched to bass, and joined the cellist, both using their bows, in a gorgeous double-stopped linear progression at a slow tempo.  A diminuendo declined to silence.

Romantic engagements and partings swelled between men and women, women and women, and men and men, sometimes with taps scraping with an affecting, sad, and protracted sandpaper effect.  Other times the mood shifted into accelerated tempos, glorious riffs, and simple, integrating melodies.

Toward the end, the flute and bowed cello joined in a kind of transformational hymn that pulled the troupe forward, swaying side to side, then forming concentric circles and intersecting parallel rows.  An ambiguous minor progression repeated to another diminuendo (G minor, E-flat, D7, G minor, A-flat, B-flat, E-flat), suggesting that in community we find solace about the inevitable endings we all must face.  As the troupe paraded offstage and through the center aisle, once again in unison song, they hurled colorful streamers into the audience, as their voices diminished in the distance.

This performance, and the more contemplative dances especially, felt perfectly apposite to the gorgeous landscape surrounding the Leir stage and to the profound philosophical thoughts implicit in the theme, I Didn’t Come Here to Stay. Our lives are transitory, and we do not choose when we leave them.  We are separate, but we need one another.  Even when we are deeply attached, none of us can predict the inevitable loss of a cherished partner.  Can making art help us find solace, and even redeem us if it carries forward and reaches others?

One of the joys of tap dancing is its improvisatory nature, the sense that you never quite know what is going to come next.

With the Limón Dance Company at the Ted Shawn Theater, the sense is of choreographed harmony; that movement, phrase, and emotion are planned and executed with pre-thought and precision.

And yet, when former Limón dancer Betty Jones approached Limón about creating a syllabus to teach the Limón technique, he refused.  According to Jones in her essay “Voices of the Body”, he felt that “the idea of a rigid outline would limit the possibilities and would establish a structure that would confine and constrict the creativity that was inherent in the technique.”

With tap, the creativity of improvisation is front and center, nakedly visible on the stage.  With Limón, the creativity of improvisation may be more indirect, behind the scenes, as dance is conceptualized and embodied in its choreographed form, as well as in the subtle interpretations of dancers working within history and tradition, much as a classical musician interprets Bach, but never changes the notes.

Air for the G String. Drawing by Carolyn Newberger

The Limón Dance Company also shares deep roots with the founders of Jacob’s Pillow, as described in a 2013 doctoral dissertation by Jason Burnett,  at the University of North Texas, which focuses on the music in the second work in this evening’s program.

Dr. Burnett quotes from Limon’s autobiography José Limón: An Unfinished Memoir, and additional biographical writings:

Early in the year nineteen hundred and twenty-nine I was born at 9 East Fifty-Ninth Street, New York City. My parents were Isadora Duncan and Harald Kreutzberg. They were not present at my birth. I doubt that they ever saw one other or were aware of their responsibility for my being. Presiding at my emergence into the world were my foster parents, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. It was at their dance studio and in their classes that I was born. I had existed previously in human form for twenty years. My grandparents were equally illustrious. They were Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. All this constitutes an imposing pedigree and, with the exception of Harald Kreutzberg, a very American one. Duncan was born in San Francisco, St. Denis in Somerville, New Jersey, Humphrey in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, and Weidman in Lincoln, Nebraska. Muy Americano. Muy yanqui.”

Dr. Burnett continues:

“So begins the eloquent first page of the unfortunately truncated autobiography by José Limón. Limón’s first entry in his memoir did not describe his actual birth, but rather his artistic one. Those “parents” and “foster parents” did not give birth to him or raise him as a child; Limón is of course referring to his major personal and professional influences. It seems fitting that he would frame his life in that way, when considered alongside his tendency to remain private about his early years.

In the collection of essays entitled José Limón, Ann Vachon devotes her entry to the choreographer’s Mexican connection.

“Of course I knew that he had been born in Mexico, that English was not his first language, and that he had the high cheekbones and dark eyes of a Native American. But since José never spoke of his family or his childhood, I thought of the Mexican part as almost a novelty… people who had known him even better than I…all said the same thing; he never spoke of his childhood.

“José Limón was physically born in Culiacán, Mexico, on January 12, 1908, the eldest of twelve children. His father Florencio, a widower of French and Spanish descent, was a bandmaster and conductor who played cello and clarinet. He held the position of director of the Academy of Music for the state of Sonora. By the age of eighteen, José had watched as his mother continued to get pregnant, even after her doctor advised against it.”

Vachon quotes Limón’s own recollection of his mother’s final pregnancy,

“She became subject to acute suffering, and finally after an agonized crisis, she departed this valley of tears at the age of thirty-four, leaving an inconsolable widower, a large brood of infants, and a brutally embittered firstborn.”  

The first work on the program, “Air For the G String (1928)”, was choregraphed by Doris Humphrey to Johan Sebastian Bach’s Suite No. 3 in D Major, “Air”

Draped in silken gowns with long flowing cowled capes, female dancers progressed across the stage, forming a stunning visual spectacle of angular gestures, elegant jumps and soft descents. Evolving floor patterns of swirling cloth over extended arms, and legs echoing the stately formality of Bach’s music projected beautifully throughout the theater, underscored the mood of calm, reverential procession.  The dancers rose into the air as easily as birds taking flight, their capes as gossamer feathers, sweeping and flowing as if gravity were momentarily suspended.  The audience gasped in appreciation and rose in ovation during the dancers’ gracious bows.

Psalm. Drawing by Carolyn Newberger

Limón’s own personal tragedies and his deep solicitude for others’ suffering energized the second work in this evening’s program, “Psalm” (1967).

Writing in The Morning Call of October 6, 2002, Kathryn Williams Craft reported on how Carla Maxwell, then director of the Limón company, helped to conceive this work:

“In a recent telephone interview, Maxwell pointed out that functioning as a repository for the preserved works of Jose Limón, who died in 1972, is not a viable mission for the company. It is too limiting.

“While the company has performed Limón masterpieces… two-thirds of his works—and the works of Doris Humphrey, the company’s original artistic director—have been lost. What the company can do is harness Limón’s technique and classicism to create new work.

“Even in its original version, in which Maxwell performed, “Psalm” was a work with an interesting genesis. Limón’s inspiration was French author Andre Schwarz-Bart’s semi-historical novel, The Last of the Just, which traces the martyrdom of the Jews through 36 generations of the Levy family, ending at Auschwitz.

“The theme of man rising out of annihilation was one that Limón had previously explored in “Missa Brevis” (1958), about the Polish people rebuilding their country after World War II, and he would return to it again in “The Unsung” (1970), his homage to the American Indian.

“Unable to obtain the rights to his original musical choice, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Limón made the work in silence, beating out rhythms for the dancers on a metal chair.

“Typically an expressionist, Limón had additionally challenged himself, in “Psalm,” to use what he considered to be an abstract choreographic vision in order to convey this message. Perhaps spurred on by his recent diagnosis of prostate cancer, Limón was very prolific, in Maxwell’s estimation, “creating enough material for 10 dances if not more.”

“Just a month or two before the premiere, Jose asked Eugene Lester, God bless him, to take all of these 10 million counts and create a score, which Eugene did marvelously, given the task and the amount of time,” recalls Maxwell.

“Yet Maxwell never was satisfied. “It was a wonderful, serviceable score, but it was not as inventive nor majestic as I thought the choreography to be.” She was also dissatisfied with her first attempt at revising the work in 1976, when Ruth Currier was directing the company.

“For this major re-visioning of “Psalm,” Maxwell restaged, edited, and shortened the piece. She also sought out new music, working for two years with John Magnussen to discover the new scope of the piece and how it would flow. Targeting that majesty Maxwell hungered for, Magnussen scored it for full chorus, 10 instruments, and a baritone soloist. This new version is danced by a full company of 13 men and women.

The added time and attention Maxwell has devoted to the work, she says, has brought a clarity to Limón’s vision that he could not achieve alone. Maxwell is clearly happy with the result. “I think that in its present form people can really see the genius in the work,” she says. “I think it’s come full circle. This staging now brings the work to rank right up there with Jose’s other master works.”

The Hebrew legend of Lavid Vav Tziddim is believed to descend from the Babylonian Talmud, and ancient Jewish text, and from rabbinical tradition.  It refers to the minimal number—literally 36—righteous men who are believed to exist in every generation, and who are privileged by their just deeds to see the Divine Presence, without whom the world cannot exist, even if their number is diminished by one.

In this dance, a Burden Bearer (here, dancer Joey Columbus), a somber, brooding, lamenting presence, is accompanied by three Expiatory Figures (dancers Mariah Gravelin, Savannah Spratt, and Lauren Twomely) who enact atonement and grief with devotions of mutual support and connection, and by the rest of the company as Psalmists who express a kind of theological crisis in their elevating the Burden Bearer aloft in an evocation of the transfiguration of a Christ figure before a crowd of anguished followers.

The staging emphasizes the angularities of extended arms and crooked elbows, hands crossed over sternums, locked arms in a circle, and sudden responses to the piercing dissonances of the music. With electronic enhancements as though from on high, a rich baritone voice repeats the words “Lavid Vav” and wordless, minor phrases, leading into the recognizable Hebrew chant of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

Dancers’ leaps appear to signify both anguish and escape from named concentration camps and their murderous business, as well as, perhaps (although he did not disclose this to his colleagues at the time of its debut), Limón’s own recent prostate cancer diagnosis and his fears about his own death and the survival of his artistic legacy.

Only One Will Rise. Drawing by Carolyn Newberger

By contrast, the next work, “The Waldstein Sonata” (1971), set to a fabulous performance of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major, Opus 53 by Maximilian Oberroither, was in the main vigorously celebratory and engaging, giving emphasis to familiar phrases, but not shrinking from Beethoven’s complex modulations, often veering into sadness and frustration.  These were expressed in sad detachments after approaches and embraces in the dance, which also revealed Limón’s own focused study and intense involvement with the layered emotions in the score.

After a pause, the program continued with a deeply affecting new work, “Only One Will Rise” (2022), by the Burkinabé choreographer Olivier Tarpaga, who with Tom Motzer also composed the music. Percussionist Daniel Johnson and guitarist Saidou Sangare joined Motzer to form a trio set against the Pillow’s barn door at the rear of the stage.

Disclosure:  Your reviewers lived in Burkina Faso, formerly Upper Volta, in the interval 1967 to 1969, where we were assigned to its capital, Ouagadougou, by the Peace Corps.  (Eli was the Peace Corps Physician, whose role included supervising a maternal and child health project that involved 22 volunteers scattered in villages populated by subsistence farmers.) We traveled all through Burkina, the size of the state of Colorado, located north of Togo, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast, with a sense of safety, never anticipating the now-frequent contemporary attacks by machine-gun-bearing terrorists who murder adults and children. This has created a terrible crisis of homelessness, overcrowding of well-defended population centers, and the dispersal of thousands of children without access to education or to health care.

This dance evokes both the traditional roles of men and women in rural agrarian societies in Africa, the controlling doctrines of conservative Islam, to which villagers began to convert in the 1960’s after a wave of proselytizing from North Africa, and the fears and risks of life in the present.  (After the performance, we talked with Mr. Sangare and learned that his family had fled violence from their traditional Fulani homeland in the north of Burkina to the capital Ouagougou.)

The piece opened with percussion, performed on a large circular drum by the virtuoso drummer Daniel Johnson, soon joined on electric guitar by Tim Motzer who picked, strummed, and improvised single note melodies as well as pulled a violin bow across the strings to evoke a shimmering, ethereal overlay to the dance, and by Saidou Sangare on electric bass.

At the outset, the dancers stood in a circle, symbolizing the solidarity among members of a village’s extended family. As they exited, two women remained in center stage.  In rapid, emotional, and violent gestures, they threshed and pounded grain, and gripped their faces and torsos in apparent anguish.

The women froze as a single man approached with a stern expression.  He walked between them and confronted one of them.  Perhaps they were co-wives in this polygynous society, or victims of terrorist control, but he emphasized that whoever he was, it was he who controlled their lives.  In a subsequent iteration of this trope, he gestured to strike one of the women.

The piece in both music and movement also evoked the joys and satisfactions of the village, the music and generous spirit that produce the cultural richness of African life, notwithstanding its widespread material poverty.

But in the dance, there were also flashes of subordination of romantic relationships between men and women, men and men, women and women.  Men embraced emotionally but quickly writhed apart, traditional and Islamic proscriptions against individual marital choice and homosexuality painfully on display.

But above all, marvelously swinging polyrhythms suffused the atmosphere, and the dancing proclaimed Limón’s vision of a moving and thrilling ensemble, making full use of the stage in angled gestures and diagonal lines. Just as Limón surmounted hardship and tragedy to create a lasting artistic legacy, so too, do African virtuosos find the glories and challenges of creative life in art, and in the superordinate meaning of human connection and hope.

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