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UCSB Dancers Bring José Limón’s Psalm to Life

by Elizabeth Schwyzer

For years, the UCSB Dance Department’s faculty members have been waiting for the right combination of elements to come together in order to produce a José Limón masterpiece with their student company. Finally, with this year’s company — the biggest ever — that time has come, and 15 dance majors in the final year of their degree program will have the honor of learning and performing Psalm, a Limón classic from 1967.

Coincidentally, 2006 marks the 60th anniversary of the Limón Company, founded by Mexican-born José and his teacher, Doris Humphrey, in 1946. Though less well-known than her contemporary Martha Graham, Humphrey is considered by many to be the founder of American modern dance. Her concept of “fall and recovery” formed the basis of Limón’s technique and his aesthetic. Known for its emphasis on weight and breath, and the sense of ease and fluidity it gives within a structured framework, Limón’s technique has arguably had an even greater impact than Graham’s more bound and rigid style on the development of post-modern dance. Alongside that of Graham, Limón’s work remains at the foundation of many modern dance programs in the country, including UCSB’s. Faculty member Tonia Shimin danced with the Limón Company after Limón’s death, while lecturer Christopher Pilafian danced with New York-based Jennifer Muller, once a Limón principal dancer. Professor emeritus Alice Condodina, a Limón principal dancer during the choreographer’s lifetime, is now a Limón Master Artist who reconstructs his dances for professional and student companies. Last September, Condodina returned to the department to teach a suite from Limón’s Psalm. Originally a 40-minute piece, this version clocks in at 26 minutes.

Clearly, Limón’s technique lives on in today’s dance training, but is his choreography equally relevant to this generation of young dancers? In Condodina’s mind, the ’50s and ’60s were the golden age of dance — a period of intense artistic generation when the very concept of the artist was rapidly evolving. “It was a time of individualism,” she reflected. “Limón, Graham, Cunningham, Taylor: Each choreographer of that period created their own training technique to house the palette for their own aesthetic.” She recalls once entering the Graham studio in New York when she was a Limón dancer, and hearing someone yell “traitor.” “In those days, you just didn’t overlap,” she recalled. “They were different languages.”

In contrast, today’s modern dance groups are mostly repertory companies, performing works of widely varying techniques and artistic temperaments. Professional dancers are expected to train as broadly as possible, and those who train in only one technique or style are far less employable than their more versatile colleagues. It’s for this reason that dancers in training need as much experience and exposure as they can get. And, as Condodina sees it, “the best way is to get into the works.”

The work in question is a response to human suffering. Condodina recalls Limón commenting on his role as an artist: “Every day you read the headlines, and then you go into the studio and you create art. Are we going to change the world? Probably not. But it’s like a ‘checks and balances’ system. If we create good art, maybe it can balance out some of the suffering.” After reading Andre Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just, one of the first novels to address the Holocaust, Limón was struck by the concept of the “just man,” upon whose shoulders the sorrows of the world rest. Premiered in 1967, Psalm addresses the plight of the individual in contrast with the power and courage of the group. In Limón’s words, Psalm is “an evocation of the heroic power of the human spirit, triumphant over death itself.”

Though Condodina performed the piece in its premiere season, reconstructing Psalm is a challenge she likens to archaeology. Only one film of the original choreography exists, shot the morning after a big show when the exhausted dancers thought they were being filmed for the sake of a casual record. Had that film not been shot, the piece would have been lost. Its grainy image and warbling soundtrack are far from ideal, but, thanks to the help of UCSB sound engineer Kevin Kelly, a fresh recording of the original score will accompany the company’s performance.

For the students, learning Psalm has been demanding, but ultimately rewarding. “It’s always interesting to do classical modern work — it’s so different from post-modern work, so structured, almost like ballet,” said Nicole Helton, who dances the female solo in Psalm. “It’s great to learn such a pivotal early modern work from one of the most influential choreographers in history.” Helton’s Within Layers will appear alongside Psalm as part of the department’s spring concert, along with works by fellow students Cherise Richards, Gina Schmidt, and Blake Hennessy-York.

Santa Barbara audiences won’t be the only ones treated to Psalm: The company has already performed the piece at Hunter College’s Sharing the Legacy showcase in New York alongside other reconstructed works of historical significance, and they will go on to tour the work in San Jose, San Diego, Berkeley, and Tijuana. They intend to leave a lasting impression. As Condodina put it, “What you were doing [as a performer] was like trying to touch the spinal cord in your audience … so that even if they’re talking about something else by the time they leave the theater, even if they forget it, it comes out in their dreams.”

4•1•1 UCSB’s Student Company performs José Limón’s Psalm alongside student choreography in Ephemeral / Indelible: A Concert in Motion, April 13-15, 8 p.m., at UCSB’s Hatlen Theatre. For tickets, call 893-3535.

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