Limon’s Company Revives a Classic Dance

In 1957, Jose Limon toured Poland with his dance company. In the rubble-strewn cities still reeling from the ravages of World War II, the choreographer contemplated the resilience of people in the aftermath of great tragedy. And when he stood before the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, Limon clearly saw redemption in the face of suffering and found the inspiration for a new dance.

The dance, called “Missa Brevis,” premiered the following year in a bombed-out church in Budapest and would become a masterpiece of the Limon canon. The June 1958 issue of Dance Magazine declared “it has been a long time since modern dance has produced a work so profoundly stirring and exalting.” Carla Maxwell, artistic director of the Jose Limon Dance Company since 1978, called it “one of those rare, perfect dances. Poland moved Limon profoundly, and from it, he created some of the most glorious choreography.”

In celebration of its 60th anniversary, the Limon Dance Company has staged a major revival of “Missa Brevis” and will perform the work at the Los Angeles Music Center in March, along with a new work by acclaimed choreographer Lar Lubovitch. Called “Recordare,” Lubovitch’s dance pays tribute to the Mexican-born Limon, who died in 1972.

Lubovitch credits Limon, who studied painting at UCLA before discovering his true calling as a dancer, for inspiring him to be a choreographer. He researched Limon’s Catholic-Mexican heritage to create a dance inspired by ancient Aztec myths and Catholic traditions.

Set to music by Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly, “Missa Brevis,” which literally means “short Mass” in Latin, begins with a group of dancers huddled defiantly in a tight group, while one dancer stands apart. The group breaks up into quartets, trios and solos, and, ultimately, all the dancers return to the stage as a united community. Throughout, they perform Limon’s signature movements, which emphasize expansiveness, theatricality and the technique of connecting the external motion of the body with the internal processes of the psyche and spirit.

“On one hand, it’s a Catholic Mass. Limon had always struggled with Catholicism and with this dance, wanted to create a true act of faith,” said Maxwell, who danced “Missa” when she joined the company in 1965. “But it’s also a universal statement of hope and re-building, and to be a part of this dance is an experience unlike any other.”

Because the dance requires between 19 and 22 performers, the 13-member Limon Company has created the Missa Project, a partnership with various dance institutions in cities where it will perform. In Los Angeles, Maxwell will audition dance students from CalArts, who will have completed a three-week workshop in Limon technique, repertory and movement philosophy.

“This is our blueprint for the future,” said Maxwell, who noted that Limon’s technique has been taught all over the world. “It’s important that all kinds of communities continue to find out about Limon.”

“Missa Brevis” set the stage for later Limon works like his 1967 “Psalm,” which also explores the theme of survival but from a more specifically Jewish perspective. Maxwell said that Limon’s experience at the Warsaw Ghetto and in post-World War II Europe “is the likely explanation” for why Limon read Andre Schwarz-Bart’s 1959 work “The Last of the Just,” one of the first novels to chronicle the plight of the Jews during World War II. Inspired by the book, Limon went on to discover the Jewish legend of the Lamed-Vov, the 36 righteous men who shoulder the sorrows of the world.

In “Psalm,” Limon took the idea of the Lamed-Vov and created the figure of a lone just man, bearing the world’s burdens but also “carrying a message of hope,” Maxwell said. “So much of Limon’s work is about people rising out of destruction. With ‘Psalm,’ he saw what happened to the Jewish people and wanted to place it in a universal context.”

Maxwell remembered Limon, who co-founded his company with Doris Humphrey in 1946, “as an avid reader who was always curious about other cultures.”

“He was always able to take a specific theme and make it into a universal statement,” she explained. “His work is timeless.”

Like many of those who studied with Limon, Maxwell spoke of her dedication to preserving her mentor’s work as if it’s an activity like breathing.

“How can I not continue his work?” she exclaimed. “We felt that Limon’s technique is so profound, and that his dances are like a canon of literature. We knew that if we disbanded, his work would disappear.”

The receptivity of dance venues to the Missa Project indicates the ongoing interest in Limon’s technique, which “is based on the natural functioning of the human body and emphasizes moving from the inside out, essentially from your soul,” Maxwell explained. Like Martha Graham and other modern dance pioneers, she said, Limon “believed in purposeful movement and that through modern dance, you could communicate grand ideas and passions.”

For Maxwell, “Missa Brevis” is a “stunning” manifestation of Limon’s movement philosophy.

“With ‘Missa,’ Jose restored dance to its ancient, spiritual function,” she said. “In this dance, he found the perfect form for exploring the triumph of the spirit.”

“Missa Brevis” will be performed with “Recordare” on March 25 at 7:30 p.m. and March 26 at 2:30 p.m. in the Music Center’s Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Tickets range from $20-$75. For information, go to or phone (213) 628-2772.


My Brilliant Masterpiece

All the Casanovas open with some killer line.

I stick my foot into my mouth every single time.

If I were a great artist, I would use my expertise,

Turn this foolish scene into my brilliant masterpiece. — Don Conoscenti

That’s the chorus of a song by a singer-songwriter I stumbled upon while trying to think of something to say to a girl in a music club in Kentucky.

In the midst of wishing I knew what to say, I listened to this troubadour with a whole song about wishing he could know what to say.

Sometimes music is like that. It finds us when we need it; it fills the prescription. It comforts us by saying: At least some obscure folk singer-songwriter who lives out of a minivan can relate to me.

I was so overwhelmed by the sentiment and timing that, uncharacteristically, I’m willing to forgive the attempted rhyme of “line” with “time.” I do this only because Mr. Conoscenti belongs to that tiny minority of lyricists (especially folk singers) who uses the subjunctive: If I were a great artist, not “was.”

In case you’re ever on my bad side, it’s handy to know that correct use of the subjunctive will afford you a lot of slack.

Do what you will, but tell me: “If I were a better girlfriend, I wouldn’t have stolen your car, sold your cats and slept with your best friend” and most everything will be forgiven.

Anyhow, this song was about talking to girls, or more to the point, not talking. Being “frozen in their lights” as an earlier verse goes. I can relate all too well.

I go to a bar and all my wit, worldly experience and education instantly deteriorates into those POV shots in “The Terminator.” Suddenly, I’m scanning my database for a response. And unlike that title character, I come up with nothing. There’s a short-circuit. The CPU crashes. I’m not programmed for this. I’ve failed in my mission to become a player, or a futuristic murdering robot-turned-governor.

What gets me is knowing — or at least believing — that someone else in this situation would know what to say and do. All those Casanovas opening with their killer lines and closing with a phone number wile I’m left just fingering the Chex mix.

But if I were a great artist….

I’d love to be Cary Grant, James Bond — who am I kidding? I’d settle for Jimmy Fallon on a good day. (I can be foppish yet aloof, can’t I?)

I’d love to display ease and mastery of a social situation — especially one that has potential to result in meeting the love of my life (or at least the love of my evening).

Honestly, maybe I’m too hard on myself. Didn’t James Bond have his awkward teen years? Just once, wasn’t he unable to screw up his courage? Didn’t he ever say: “Bond, James Blond — I mean Bond! Oy, listen to me! I sound like such a shmuck.”

They don’t show those scenes in the movies though, do they? Instead, James Bond taunts me with his perfect swagger, perfect hair, and perfect women. I tell you: I’m beginning to think he may be a fictional character.

But back to the reality of the barroom, where I hope to craft my masterpiece. Let’s assume for a moment that a bar can be where art can happen, that The Cat & Fiddle is a canvas.

Art is risk and a great risk demands an occasional spectacular nosedive. Not every attempted Picasso is, well, a Picasso. Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline,” Spielberg’s “1941,” Prince’s “Black Album,” Bochco’s “CopRock,” America’s 43rd president. These are all necessary stumbles that made future work even better.

And even with a bona fide masterpiece, surely there are drafts, sketches, revisions, rough cuts. Even Jackson Pollock didn’t get the drips right the first time.

I want to keep these artworks in mind the next time I approach a woman awkwardly. I must remember: Like any artist, to make something beautiful, I have to be willing to get ugly. I’m going to get paint in my hair, fast-spinning clay under my fingernails, paper cuts, carpal-tunnel, welding burns. I’m going to have to put up with editors and critics and bachelorettes who just don’t get me.

It’s the cost of doing business, and if you keep going, you get to something ultimately more valuable than the phone number of a girl at a music club in Kentucky, or the song you keep in her honor.

By the way, don’t worry if you’ve never heard of Conoscenti — most people outside of his immediate family haven’t. If you want to learn more, visit, or else join me on my next road trip across the desert. Just don’t blame me when you realize the doors are locked and you’re miles from nowhere as I’m singing folk songs with the subtle nuances of an air raid siren.

People in passing cars must think this a foolish scene, but I know better: It’s my brilliant masterpiece.

Keith van Straaten is a writer and performer who hosts “What’s My Line? — Live on Stage” Wednesdays in Los Angeles. For more information, visit