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Silent thoughts of Mr. C. (Kickoff).

ON THE FIRST-NIGHT GALA AT THE JOYCE THEATER CELEBRATING THE JOSE LIMON DANCE COMPANY'S FIFTY-FIFTH ANNIVERSARY, THE AUDIENCE WAS ASKED TO OBSERVE A MINUTE OF SILENCE AFTER THE OPENING PERFORMANCE OF AN excerpt from the Limon signature piece There Is a Time. In addition to still-fresh memories of September 11, people were now trying to work through a new horror--a fatal plane crash just the day before in a residential neighborhood in the borough of Queens that had resulted in the loss of more than 260 lives.

As I looked around the theater, the lights half up to a sulfurous yellow gloom after the dancers' exit, I wondered what, in fact, people actually do think about in these circumstances. It's rather like communal prayer, I suppose, a time of focusing and assessing and admission. The dance world has responded to the tragedies with such compassion and generosity--some of us must have been thinking about that.

Knowing, as we do, that there are harder times yet ahead for the arts, we might consider the example of the Limon company's longevity and the singular beauty of the company's repertoire and its dancers. Along that line, I mused during the quiet moments, you could also consider Limon's hard-earned success as a dancer and choreographer in an era when dance was by absolutely no means a favored profession for men.

These days such deathly still memorial silence in the theater may not be rare, but this silence is itself disquieting, unnatural; the audience collectively exhaled held breath when the minute was over and the performing could resume. With my thoughts of Limon's accomplishments still in mind, the arc of thought, reaching in many directions at the same time, pulled in a topic that had been with me the previous weeks: Willam Christensen, a much-loved figure who died at age 99 this past fall and whose memorial celebration had been held a few days before in Salt Lake City (see Transitions, page 74).

Willam--or Bill, or Mr. C.--is probably not as well known to the dance world at this time as he should be. In fact, Willam and his equally famous brothers Lew and Harold opened the range of possibilities for men in dance--this in a day and age when the American West, where Christensen worked, was hog-tied by an iconography of guns and jeans and cows and big hats that, most certainly, did not include ballet. The Christensen Brothers, as they were known, made things enormously easier for other men such as Limon to establish themselves in the first place. If it hadn't been for the Christensens out West, we might not have been sitting in the Joyce in New York City on Limon's fifty-fifth anniversary celebration. They were just ahead of Limon (who died in 1972 at the age of 64) in their pioneering, first as musicians and vaudevillians, then as dancers, teachers, and founders and directors of the major western companies San Francisco Ballet and Ballet West, as well as schools and university programs that have done much in their day to settle and tame the western landscape for a nascent art form, dance.

PROBABLY NONE OF US WOULD BE reading this magazine or looking around for jobs in dance if it hadn't been for Christensen. As one former artistic director of Ballet West observed during the memorial tribute, Willam did not even have the advantages of firsthand knowledge of previous European and Russian productions of such now-familiar classics as The Nutcracker, Coppelia, and Cinderella, and yet he was the first American choreographer to create full-length versions. Choreographed for San Francisco in 1944, his Nutcracker is still pretty much intact in Ballet West's rep, and is distinguished by being the first full-length version to lead the way toward making this ballet into the beloved annual American holiday tradition that it has become.

PERHAPS ONE OF THE GREATEST tributes to Willam's influence in dance is taking place this month in Park City, Utah, as well as in Salt Lake City. As part of the 2002 Cultural Olympiad of the Olympic Winter Games and the Paralympic Winter Games, Ballet West, now under the inspiring guidance of Jonas Kage, will be presenting as part of the cultural exchange program an evening called "A Gala Celebration of Twentieth-Century Masterworks." In addition to the seventy-eight Olympic medal events, the Olympians will be treated to a look at dance works performed by, in addition to Ballet West, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Children's Dance Theatre, the Limon Dance Company, the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, Pilobolus Dance Theatre, Utah's Repertory Dance Theatre, the American Folk Ballet, AXIS Dance Company, and Savion Glover in Concert. And that's just the dance part of the Olympics cultural exchange this month.

In Willam Christensen's pioneering days--and this is true for Limon as well--there was an attempt to legitimize the art of dance by making what I believe is a false comparison with sports. This was a period public-relations ploy: Americans approved of the rough-and-tumble of sports, and so likening the art of dance to sports made dance more acceptable in mainstream culture. There are, of course, some legit parallels between dance and sports--the art of graceful movement, quickness, responsiveness, interaction, musicality. (Yes, there is a certain musicality to sports activity.) There are crossovers in terms of commitment and training and focus and egos and competition. But they remain different disciplines. It is no longer necessary to pronounce dance legitimate except on its own terms--dance is dance is dance, and if you happen to see, as I do, dance in everything else as well, so much the better.

The debate persists, however, and is part of that long and lasting legacy of Mr. C. If you happen to have the time and the money and a taste for the cold and snow, you will find a lot more in Utah to look at than you might have imagined.

Richard Philp has written a column called Kickoff for thirteen years. He has been an editor with Dance Magazine since 1970, was editor in chief for many years, and is known for his strong support of the arts.
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Title Annotation:influence of Willam Christensen on dance world considered
Author:Philp, Richard
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2002
Words:1023
Previous Article:Orphans and Olympians. (Starting Here).
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