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Genius Unspools In `A Life Beyond Words. (Reviews: Moving Images).


For today's young dancers, the name Jose Limon may conjure many images, among them a company bearing his name and versed in his repertoire, a modern dance technique, and a dancer about whom their teachers, of a certain age, speak with awe. Many recognize Limon's elegant countenance from dance history books, and his technique as closely aligned with that of his teachers, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. Some may even have seen the two very fine commercial tapes of Limon dancing in his works The Moor's Pavane and Emperor Jones. But nothing will quite prepare them for the multiple images of Limon early in his career--these are part of a wonderful new documentary, Limon: A Life Beyond Words. Produced by Ann Vachon, co-produced by Jeff Levy-Hinte of Antidote Films, and directed and edited by Vachon's son, Malachi Roth, this poetic film enriches our experience and understanding of this great artist.

Limon was born in Mexico in 1908. The poverty and alienation he experienced when his family immigrated to America in 1915 matched the political and social tumult of his early years in Mexico. The film skillfully presents historical footage of Mexico--colorful religious festivals and fiestas contrasted with revolutionary wars and refugees fleeing--with Limon speaking of his childhood in interviews and filmed speeches. His brothers and sisters provide insight as they reflect on his role as eldest child. In Los Angeles, Limon saw himself as a "translator, a conciliator," trying to reconcile his Mexican childhood, its language and customs, with his new life. It was a role he continued to play throughout his life. Limon's deepest feelings emerge in readings from his autobiography, Jose Limon: An Unfinished Memoir (edited by Dance Magazine advisor/senior editor Lynn Garafola). Isaiah Sheffer, whose voice will sound familiar to regular listeners of NPR's Selected Shorts, reads Limon's words. The actress Uta Hagen narrates the film.

Excerpts from Limon's dances are superimposed on historical footage so that the words and images provide a context and reveal the emotional roots of his choreography, establishing the enormous impact of his turbulent early years. As he speaks of his mother, who died in childbirth at age 34, we see dancer Carla Maxwell, as Carlota the Mexican Empress in his dance Carlota, turning upon herself in a perpetual circle of anguish. Limon said, "All choreography is autobiographical whether one intends it or not."

Although he came to New York in 1929 to be a painter, Limon was staggered by the dancing of German expressionist Harald Kreutzberg, so, he found his way to the Humphrey-Weidman studio to learn to dance. Some extraordinary images of Limon's early dancing complement this story of his early training, and his duets with Eleanor King are particularly poignant. Former Humphrey-Weidman dancer Nona Schurman recalls someone referring to Limon as a "mad stallion." In these early clips that strength is very evident, but there is also a surprising refinement, a magnificent grace, and a tragic passion.

It is evident that Limon's body became the subject of his dances in a way that aligns him more closely with Martha Graham than with his beloved mentor Doris Humphrey. His compelling size and stunning physical beauty demanded heroic themes. Othello, the Emperor Jones, Judas ... these were men of passion. Whether sympathetic figures or not, their torment resonated in Limon's portrayals.

Limon's career with the Humphrey-Weidman company, the personal break with Weidman that propelled him on his own, and his marriage to Pauline Lawrence, the third member of the Humphrey-Weidman triumvirate, are history told frankly, but always in the context of Limon's creative work. The positive reception to the Limon Company's debut in 1947 sets the tone for the next twenty-five years of creative output.

There are longer excerpts of Limon's signature works that also inform the viewer of what was happening in the world and in his life at the point of creation. This is supported by comments from many of the dancers who worked with him over a long period of time: Lucas Hoving, Betty Jones, Sarah Stackhouse, and Pauline Koner among them. Not surprisingly, they speak of the content and movement qualities that distinguished Limon's dances. But they also admire his sense of form and his musicality. The film illustrates Limon's genius, both as a choreographer and as a man. Limon died in 1972.

Limon: A Life Beyond Words won the 2001 Animavision/Montage Award for "Best Film Made for Television" from the Montreal International Festival of Films on Art. Its creators hope to have it aired on PBS, and to make it available commercially.
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Author:Thom, Rose Ann
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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