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Steamboat Magazine

Reimagining José Limón

08/05/2022 01:18PM ● By Jennie Lay

Photography by Kelly Puleio

Steamboat Springs, CO - Infinite yards of marigold fabric draped the five lithe dancers hovering at the door. They stepped slowly into the glass-walled pavilion at Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts Camp as late-day light glowed through the aspen forest. An audience of dance aficionados sat awed by a delicate weaving and unfurling as the women performed “Air for the G String,” a 1928 piece choreographed by Doris Humphrey to music by Johann Sebastian Bach. The effect was stunning.

The Limón Dance Company, America’s first modern dance repertory company, was resurrecting this legacy work on hallowed ground, reuniting  last summer for a residency at Perry-Mansfield after the pandemic lockdown. Their presence marked an artistic convergence at the 109-year-old arts camp. Back in the 1930s, modern dance revolutionaries like Humphrey, Charles Wideman, Agnes de Mille and José Limón relied upon Perry-Mansfield’s discreet location in Strawberry Park to escape the prying eyes of New York, imagine cutting-edge movement, and create the foundations of modern dance. Limón, who died in 1972, is credited with creating one of the world’s most enduring dance legacies. His company has been at the vanguard of American modern dance since its inception and is considered one of the world’s greatest dance companies.

Nearly a century after Humphrey’s piece was first performed at Perry-Mansfield, the camp witnessed the revival of the classic piece performed by Limón’s legendary company. The moment was sweetened by the fact that the Limón dancers were making their camp debut in Steamboat – a long-due appearance that coincided with the company’s 75th anniversary season.

“In 75 years, the company’s never been here before,” says Dante Puleio, the company’s artistic director. A few days after the impromptu performance, he relaxed for a chat. Warm and casual, he spoke with legs dangling off the porch of the historic, open-air Louis Horst studio while a Limón technique class proceeded behind him. The percussion of a live drum shifted to the adagio of stringed music as 24 college students sweated alongside 12 members of the Limón company.

“It feels like just the right moment. You know, José was part of the original era when modern dance was at its pinnacle, and it was happening here. To start off new, with a new generation, it feels wildly appropriate to be here. I’m excited to see this company actually start to find that performance groove,” Puleio confesses. “The other night was the first time a lot of them have performed in person since a year and a half ago, and I was glad it worked out that way. It was like open rehearsals – low stakes. It was more about sharing an experience.” 

The Limón residency included two weeks with pre-professional students and a two-week solo intensive for the company. The camp allowed for something deeper than a two-hour audition – a chance to get to know one another on a deeper, more creative level.

Growing Dance in Isolation

In March 2020, Puleio discovered that coronavirus lockdowns might offer an opportunity for expansion. No longer able to gather in their shared rehearsal space with Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Limón company went virtual. Instagram classes opened a portal for students throughout the world. Enrollment spiked enough to create two tracks, including one for more experienced dancers that grew into Limón 2, a second company that serves as a stepping stone to the main company.

“It opened up a lot of possibilities because you kind of had to go back to zero,” says Puleio, who was tapped as Limón’s artistic director one week after the world went into lockdown. “Having said that, what is important for me is looking at who José was as a person and building from there. How can we identify with what he did, why he did it? And how can we talk about that for the 21st century artist and audience? How can we make that interesting?”

Limón’s Return

The Limón legacy began finding its way back to Perry-Mansfield via Chris Compton and Tammy Dyke-Compton when they became the camp’s dance co-directors in 2015. Compton entered University of the Arts in Philadelphia a year behind Puleio, and “Dante was just this force for good. He took me under his wing,” Compton says. 

Jump to 2021, “and next thing you know, we have Limón Dance Company at Perry-Mansfield. So that was kind of incredible,” marvels Dyke-Compton. She was a Perry-Mansfield camper long before she became dance director. “My first experience of modern dance was when I was 16 and I was a student at Perry-Mansfield. That’s where the seed was planted. I ended up going to Julliard, and I studied Limón for four years.”

Dyke-Compton constantly reminds her students about the modern dance pioneers who taught at Perry-Mansfield. This is where it blossomed, where it was born, where it was nurtured. “And we would not be here today without that lineage, and without that discovery that happened at camp,” she says.  

Turning 75

José Limón’s technique is specific. “It really sits in the idea of our body’s relationship to gravity,” Puleio says. “We look at suspension and opposition … what are we doing at this moment, right before we fall, and examining that with the body.” It’s a vocabulary that originated with modern dance pioneers Humphrey and Weidman, who first brought Limón with them to Perry-Mansfield in 1935.

An aspiring painter, Limón discovered dance in his 20s through Humphrey and Weidman. As their dancer, and later as a choreographer for his own company, Limón shaped the Humphrey-Weidman vocabulary into his own language. Puleio describes a feeling the opposite of ballet: instead of floating, the dancer is embracing what it is to give  
in to gravity and be connected to the earth.

In the 21st century, schools teach Limón and ballet as points of complementary focus. 
“That’s how they train their dancers because it offers them not only technique, but texture and how they use their technique, understanding your body and how it moves in space,” Puleio says. 

Limón Dance Company opened its 75th season last April at the iconic Joyce Theater in 
New York City – another glorious return, as the Limón company was part of Joyce’s inaugural season. The anniversary celebration is a nod to both Limón’s historic choreography and who he was as a human. The company looked toward the future with two world premieres by guest choreographers in 2022 – new works that reflect a kind of conversation with Limón’s personal inspirations as the son of a musician who grew up in Mexico during a revolution.

A new look at Limón

After marveling at “Air for G String,” last summer’s intimate audience migrated across the Perry-Mansfield campus. Inside the rustic main theater, the company performed parts of Limón’s 1966 piece. “The Winged,” ingeniously dancing on a stage that famously lacks wings. They were unveiling the bones of a work in process – just the kind of engagement that once gave founders Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield great glee – because the residency had given the company time to reimagine “The Winged” as a dance on film. 

“It’s always interested me to take that work out of the proscenium and put it in nature, because we’re looking at the wing and we’re looking at birds. We’re looking at that human need for flight and freedom and power over our own destiny, and how we can bring that into nature. Why not put the piece where it can kind of live a little bit?” Puleio explains. 

The company filmed later that week in the aspens, meadows and ponds of Perry-Mansfield, and “The Winged” transformed classic Limón stage choreography into a contemporary work for the screen. One imagines Mansfield, Perry and Limón applauding their audacity from on high.

“The Winged” dance on film is now touring global film festivals.