PillowVoices: Dance Through Time

A Study of José Limón: Artist and Immigrant

Episode Summary

Pillow Research Fellow and dance writer J. Soto hosts this study of José Limón and his Mexican roots. Soto examines the classic solo Chaconne, and issues related to both artistry and immigration.

Episode Transcription

[Music begins, composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: Welcome to PillowVoices, a production of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival with content from the Pillow Archives. I’m Norton Owen, the Pillow’s Director of Preservation, and it’s my pleasure to introduce dance writer J. Soto, a Pillow Research Fellow, who will be your host for this study of José Limón. J. will examine the classic solo work, Chaconne, considering issues related to both artistry and immigration.

[Music: a lone electric guitar plays, followed by drums, cymbals, and other percussive instruments, “J Soto Overture”composed by Ellis Rovin, 2020]

J. SOTO: I feel grateful to have written part of this podcast while researching and spending time in Tucson, Arizona where José Limón lived briefly as child prior to moving to Los Angeles with his family. Much of the area is recognized today as the land of the Tohono O'odham Nation and Pascua Yaqui people, so I first want to offer thanks to them.

Considering José Limón’s path of movement from his birthplace of Culiacan northward through Mexican towns such as Cananea and Nogales, to Tucson, Arizona, Los Angeles, California, and his eventual move in 1928 to New York City is significant as the pattern itself from place to place is familiar to many immigrants. It is significant for those who enter the U.S. to live and first travel northward before traveling east or west. Though it has been many decades since a young Limón arrived in the U.S. and went on to achieve great success as an American modern dancer and choreographer, re-considering the pathways of both artistry and immigration today are ever important.

[music trails off]

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that a relationship or narrative of immigration is not universal for people living in the U.S. For example, native peoples live, and have lived, on the land for centuries, some with ancestral lands and sovereign nations stretching across U.S. borders and existing prior to the borders we know today. Limón himself makes brief mention of his relationship to indigeneity in his memoir, which alludes further to the complexity of his own narrative. 

Here is Colin Connor, Artistic Director of the Limón Dance Company and Jacob’s Pillow Scholar-in-Residence Maura Keefe discussing how we have come to know Limón through the legacy of his dances and his choreographic style:

COLIN CONNOR: For JoséLimón, and I never met him, so I actually really, I think there was a quote where you— ‘you’ll know me through the dances’…


COLIN CONNOR: …and really that’s the only way I know him. And for me when I watch him,when I watch the work he created, I feel that gravity for him, was really elementally sort of heaven and hell. And the idea of that opposition, and it wasn’t like he was always trying to go to heaven, I think he was always mediating—mediating between that idea of what takes us down and what lifts us up. So, it was a different sense of gravity that I think, that I think he had. And that’s really so much a part of the technique. The idea of opposition that’s not just in the body, but opposition that really, you know, goes from those rocks down there to the corner of the room up here and how you can switch those oppositions and create that kind of momentum. Um, the idea of momentum, how one movement creates the next movement, creates the next movement, so that you really do create this ongoing-ness that creates—it actually, it creates physical drama, that then becomes sort of dramatic drama.

J. SOTO: For me, personally, artistry and immigration became a focus point because of the abrupt ending in Limón’s aptly named An Unfinished Memoir, which concludes on the very edge of him articulating a complex relationship to the land of the Southwest. This premature ending reflects an immense space in his story, as well as the story of many others, that is both poignant and relevant as the Southwest and border towns have become an increasing target of immigration politics with violent consequences. 

Limón’s relationship to an early home was not always an easy one, though in full circle, many years later in the early 1950’s, Limón was invited to Mexico City where he would choreograph a series of new dances. For this podcast I looked towards an even earlier dance, the solo work Chaconne, which was choreographed during the years not covered in his memoir. Limón began writing when he was already ill and passed away before he could include this dance work, and many others, within the written story of his life. I felt this focus could offer a beginning-point for further exploration of a written timeline abruptly cut short. 

[Music: a violin, followed by trumpet, flows over a staccato snare drum that, almost, marches through the text it underlies, “Limone’s March/Identity Interlude”Rovin, 2020]

Limón, was a dancer and a cultural figure who created works over a 40-year period, including the period of World War II. He was drafted into the Army during the war, when many Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants were negotiating a precarious relationship to U.S. citizenship and belonging, as many still do. At the time, some Mexican Americans as well as non-citizen service members served in the armed forces, while others took part in mutual aid and civil rights organizing.  

Beginning in 1942, many Mexican guest-workers would join a large-scale federal program designed to fill the need for U.S. agriculture and railroad laborers during the war known as the Bracero Program. This was the largest U.S.contract labor program, which lasted until 1964 and relied heavily on Mexican nationals. Many, because of guest status, lacked full rights in American society. Considering each of these as distinct experiences, but shared parts of a cultural moment in the U.S. and Mexico, offers some insight into the complexities of citizenship and belonging at that time, which would influence generations to come. 

The burgeoning American modern dance movement offered Limón an artistic family and future. In his memoir, he wrote, “Besides the Catholic religion, it was art that bridged the chasm separating the scared Mexican child from the slowly, [music fades away] but inevitably acclimatizing youth and adult. My accent might have been ridiculed, but my prowess as an artist was accepted with total and gratifying admiration.” For Limón, a man born in 1908, and who began his dance training at the age of 21, it was art and the practice of dance which provided opportunity, excitement, and a sense of community. Dance had an enormous impact on Limón’s identity. So dramatic, in fact, was the catalyzing moment when he felt himself called to dance after witnessing a performance by German dancer, Harald Kreutzberg, in 1929 that he later acknowledged this moment as his birth. Here’s Maura Keefe discussing his early life and his multiple births:

MAURA KEEFE: Limón was born in Mexico although his family left before he was an adult, it played a significant role on his identity both as a person and an artist. He had no thoughts of being a dancer, not at first. He really knew nothing of the world of theatrical dance, where he would go on to make his mark as he grew up. He came to New York, identifying as a painter, with the intention of becoming immersed in a community of visual artists. Seeing a performance by the extraordinary German dancer, Harald Kreutzberg changed his passion. Limón wrote years later that until that performance, he had never realized that a man could with dignity and towering majesty dance. Even later, writing in his memoir, he decided he was born in 1921, not in 1908, and his parents were Isadora Duncan and Harald Kreutzberg. 

Once he decided to dance, he trained at one of the few places in New York at that time that was willing to teach men. And remember this was in 1929, and people were suspicious enough of women who were modern dancers without adding the complication of being a man to the mix. So, he started to study with Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, who had met touring and training with Denishawn, the company and school run by Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis. This was a fortuitous event for all concerned. Limón became a talented performer in their work and Humphrey would go on to become an important mentor for him for the rest of both of their lives.

J. SOTO: I see Limón’s Chaconne as yet another birth site offering more information about his artistic output. Choreographed in the early 1940s, and still part of the Limón Dance Company’s repertory, I think that the work provides a guidepost when considered across the decades. Developed as a solo for Limón, the piece is ten minutes long with music from Sonata in D Minor for Unaccompanied Violin by Johann Sebastian Bach. 

Here’s an excerpt of the music score.

[Music note: Sonata in D Minor for Unaccompanied Violin, composed by Johann Sebastian Bach; performed on piano. This is a complex and resounding piece that leverages the entire range of the instrument, climbing and descending octaves and traversing both upper and lower registers of the keyboard, landing in the deeper bass of the piano, leaving the listener feeling grounded and weighted; pianist unknown]

J. SOTO: The music and applause you just heard was from the final moments of the 1997 performance at Jacob’s Pillow on July 8th of that year danced by Gary Masters for the Company’s 50th anniversary season. I find the performance somewhat lonesome, and I like that. [Sonata in D Minor floats under the following text] The dancer takes deep lunges, then rises again, lean and willowy with the grace and power of a bullfighter that feels characteristic of Limón. The way Masters inhabits the choreography is sometimes reserved and at other times elegantly generous through the repetition of these phrases. 

[music ends]

Limón was thirty-four when he premiered Chaconne. The following year he was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he created dances for the Army Special Services. I recommend reading Dance is a Moment, a Portrait of José Limón in Words and Pictures by Barbara Pollack and Charles H. Woodford, which includes pictures and notation for some of these Army works.

Chaconne was performed more recently in 2018 and was introduced by Jacob’s Pillow Director of Preservation, Norton Owen. For the opening of this performance, the audience was treated to a filmed excerpt of Limón himself performing the work on the very same stage. Perhaps in a nod to the number of people who have inhabited Chaconne through the decades, the 2018 performance included three dancers from the Company, sharing in the solo work and joining together in the final moments on stage. Here Owen makes a note of Chaconne’s extended life throughout the years at the Pillow:

NORTON OWEN: We have another outstanding opportunity to ponder dance through the ages with the first piece on the program tonight. It’s Chaconne, a solo that Limóncreatedin 1942. It was danced here several times in the 1940s by Limón himself. [violin music plays in the background] One of those times, in 1948, it was filmed actually on this stage, but from the back of the house, the doors to the stage open and it was filmed that way for the purposes of light. And you will get to see a little bit of that film to lead off this wonderful rendition of Chaconne

[Music: somewhat dreamy music, followed by a low, drawn-out bowed violin arises; “Dances Through Time”Rovin, 2020]

J. SOTO: I’ve personally been thinking about time and artistic lineage because of how it connects to the cultural and political moments in which dance works are produced. How we describe lineage offers up information about the moment the works were made. How does this lineage become embedded in the body through practice and repetition and then recognized by those who arrive to witness the work? What tools of witnessing and embodied recognition do audiences bring to performances as culturally charged beings? Especially today as we reconsider choreographers and their works in relation to our moment, I wonder sometimes where there might be opportunity for cross-cultural learning and solidarity.

Here again is Colin Connor and Maura Keefe in conversation. [music stops]

MAURA KEEFE: So, what are some of the things that you think of as kind of fundamental to Limón technique or, and I guess we could even sort of say modern dance since the family tree and his legacy is so spread throughout modern dance. 

COLIN CONNOR: I mean I think that’s true and I actually think there are a lot of those people also. I think they really did feel that the art could speak about what it is for us to live here right now. Um, they were very, very politically engaged. 

J. SOTO: Limón navigated the nature of being an immigrant artist of Mexican origin during his life in a way that for me personally is difficult to fully register because of the very real distance in years and life experiences, and because of the negotiations between nationality and race. Yet these are relevant today on a collective scale and call for more research and dialogue.

For Limón and his contemporaries there were clear artistic family trees, clear affiliations of deep admiration, respect, and artistic and personal commitment. These relations are deeply complex, despite their perceived continuity and clarity when compared to his difficult childhood and a family impacted and pushed northward by the Mexican Revolution. These inherent complexities of artistry are also part of understanding how we contextualize belonging—or not belonging, then and today through dance. How does the land where one lives—or has lived—become part of the choreography, too? I think some of these answers are illustrated by Limón—a self-described translator whose work physically materializes so well the overlapping tension between multiple worlds informed by his personal journeys. 

[Music: the lone electric guitar from the beginning of this episode enters the listening space, “Limone Finale”Rovin, 2020]

Chaconne, Limón’s earliest surviving choreographic work, offers an example of how dance as an artform reflects its maker and can be re-made new by repetition. Choreographed in the first half of the 20th century to a piece of music written in the 16th century, the piece exhibits Limón’s embodied dualities while the many dancers who dance it continue this practice of inhabiting and shaping the space and place around themselves.

In this way, I think the very nature of making dance can create the past as unforgettable, the present as impossible to ignore, and the future as inevitable. 

[Rovin music fades.]

[Closing music comes in, composed and performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: That’s it for this episode of PillowVoices. Thank you for joining us today. On behalf of Jacob’s Pillow, we look forward to sharing more dance with you through the films, essays, and podcasts at danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org, and of course, through live experiences during our festival and throughout the year. Special thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts for helping launch this podcast series. Please subscribe to PillowVoices wherever you get your podcasts and visit us again soon—either online or onsite.