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

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

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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