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 www.musiccenter.org or phone (213) 628-2772.