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Three Modern Dance Classics:
VAI 4224, 2009
Recorded in 1955/57, 65 minutes
Reviewed by Graham Watts
The work of the Mexican-American choreographer/dancer, José Limón (1908-1972) has been woefully disregarded in the UK, outside of the dance academic world. His choreography has been rarely performed here, although he is rightly regarded as a seminal influence on modern dance in the USA, where the company bearing his name continues to flourish.
This VAI DVD gives a British audience the chance to appreciate the immense sense of theatre and musicality in three of Limón’s classic works: starting with his most famous creation, ‘The Moor’s Pavane’ (made in 1949), which is an intense distillation of the complex web of love and jealousy in ‘Othello’; ‘The Traitor’ (1954) being a modern day interpretation of Judas set against McCarthyism and the environment of betrayal and mistrust that saturated the American arts communities at the time of its making; and, finally, ‘The Emperor Jones’ (1956) is based upon a Eugene O’Neill play about the rise and fall of an escaped fugitive who becomes ruler of an island but quickly turns into a despot and is overthrown by the people.
Each of these works has a powerful narrative message that flows from the deep moral sensibility that transcends much of Limón’s catalogue and not one of them lasts for more than 23 minutes. No choreographer, before or since, has managed to distil the essence of remarkable stories and tell them through an intensity of gesture and movement with such effective brevity.
The three black & white films were all broadcast on Canadian TV over a period of two years, beginning with ‘The Moor’s Pavane’ in March 1955, then ‘Traitor’ in October of that year and, finally, ‘The Emperor Jones’ in March 1957. Remarkably, the films were kept and have been retrieved from the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s archives for this excellent DVD: noteworthy not just for being of historic importance but for the outstanding quality of performance.
‘The Moor’s Pavane’ is introduced by Limón in a hesitant but charmingly unscripted piece to camera, explaining his intent to take ‘the tragedy of Othello in a new dimension….stated in a different way, not by words but with gestures’. Limón concludes the introduction by saying that ‘a person not understanding one single English word would be able to tell you about Othello merely by seeing how the human body functions and works’, which strikes me as a succinct self-appraisal of his whole oeuvre.
What follows is an intense achievement in gestural narration, superbly aided by the all-seeing camera, which succeeds in capturing the intensity of relationships between the four protagonists and tells the audience all it needs to know about the tenderness of love and the insidious evil of jealousy and betrayal. Limón plays the Moor, alongside the three other players on whom the ballet was created six years previously: Betty Jones (Desdemona), Lucas Hoving (Iago) and Pauline Koner (Emilia). Each character is introduced in the opening credits with the recital of relevant extracts from Shakespeare to explain their motivations.
‘The Traitor’ is particularly MacMillanesque both in its expressionist theme of an outsider (Limón again in the title role) in the updated Judas characterisation; and in some of the expansive movement ideas – Hoving (as The Leader betrayed by Limón) walking across the standing bodies of an ensemble of other men and a tortured, grotesque and distorted solo for Limón, starkly illuminated by a single spotlight. Apart from the weightier, more expansive, movement style it seems precisely the kind of psychological expressionism that MacMillan was beginning to experiment with on the other side of the Atlantic at this time and there are, of course, significant thematic links to MacMillan’s last ballet, ‘The Judas Tree’, including the final suicidal hanging of the Judas figure.
As with ‘The Traitor’, the final work is for an all-male ensemble with the lead roles again taken by Limón and Hoving; and again it is Limón’s character that ends the work in death. ‘The Emperor Jones’ eschews the dark, cloistered feel of the earlier works’ staging and Bill McCrow’s designs evoke the heat and sweat of a tropical island with a remarkable clarity in black & white.
Throughout each work it is remarkable how Limón’s choreography defines each character quickly and accurately through a mixture of expansive but finely detailed posturing and this often incorporates an undercurrent of subtle eroticism, which reaches a surprisingly overt level in ‘The Emperor Jones’, especially for a work broadcast on TV in 1957. Limón’s cocksure titular character is defined not just by swivelling hips and a thrusting crotch but also by a revolver holster swinging between his legs. Limón, himself, gives an immensely macho performance with a seriously well defined muscularity (I think one might say “ripped” in today’s terminology), impressive for a man just months away from his 50th birthday.
Although the three films are now dated through the technology employed in the 50s, the performances are surprisingly modern and entirely relevant. The disc is worth owning for ‘The Moor’s Pavane’ alone, since this must rate as the definitive performance by the creators of this stunning work, but both of the additional works are a very welcome bonus.