The Dances of Doris Humphrey
Creating a contemporary perspective through directorial interpretation
by Lesley Main
(first published in Dance Research, Vol. 23.2, Winter 2005)
The following extract is from an article by Ernestine Stodelle, written at the time of Weidman’s death:
‘Weidman death saddens the world’ (1975)
Charles Weidman, one of America’s greatest innovators died in his sleep last Tuesday in New York City. He would have been 74 years old on July 22. Unlike his colleague, Martha Graham, who still wields fearsome power, Charles was never an awesome figure. As a human being he was always approachable; he was always responsive to student, spectator and dancer who would come to him in search of inspiration and advice….and many did, from big names to small ones. Charles pronounced no oracles, but you knew, listening to him express himself in his sometimes stammering way, that he himself was an oracle, full of the wisdom of having ‘been there’, rich in the knowledge of all ropes of ‘theatre dance’, that composite art which integrates all theatrical elements: music, dance, drama, scenery, costumes and even speech. And let us not forget comedy as part of this royal entourage, for comedy was Charles’ greatest gift.
Spontaneity, the very essence of Charles Weidman’s creative personality, burst forth most enchantingly in his own genre of satirical mime. Often compared to Charlie Chaplin, who virtually danced his roles, Weidman infused every movement with innate acting skill. Long before Marcel Marceau conjured up the unforgettable image of Bip, that ridiculous, delicious creature who is buffeted by life’s minor experiences, there was Weidman portraying equally unforgettable characters in search of some kind of ‘meaning’ in their lives. There he was, on one side of the stage as the mundane husband in “A Unicorn in the Garden”, busily preparing some fried eggs for himself while his night-gowned and roller-curled wife was still asleep, when chancing to glance up, what should he see but a unicorn quietly eating grass just outside his kitchen window. Aquiver with excitement, he wakes his wife and tries in vain to describe to that annoyed sceptic his exalted vision. In the process this simple work-a-day fellow becomes a radiant messenger of marvellous tidings. No Angel of the Annunciation could bring a more glorious announcement to an unsuspecting world. Suspecting the worst of her poor husband, the wife calls in the police and psychiatrist, for, surely, no such beast exists. But between Thurber, who wrote the script, and Weidman, who danced it, the world is set right again, for it is the angry wife who is carried off kicking and screaming to the insane asylum, while the placid husband happily left alone with his memories contentedly eats his eggs!
In his tiny studio on West 29th Street in Manhattan, Charles Weidman had his own visions, seen not through the windows of his approximately 14-foot wide x 20 foot deep performing area, known as The Expression of Two Arts Theatre, but through rear-view windows, so to speak, of his entire life. Drawing upon the certitude that he and his renowned partner, Doris Humphrey, had created, a unique form of movement that would remain for all time a solid technique within the framework of American Modern Dance, Weidman continued his own tradition to choreograph and even to perform. Besides his own Thurber tales, there were his “Kinetic Pantomimes” – rhythmically scintillating studies in gestural allusion – and his eloquent “Portrait of Lincoln”. The latter revealed Weidman’s instinctual grasp of understatement, for this solo danced to a spoken script of “Mrs. Bixby’s letter” contained but a handful of movements, each one expressing in depth the tragic implications of the Civil War.
His small company, known as the Charles Weidman Theatre Dance Company, is made up of young devotees who recognized genius when they found it. They have been working with the master for years for pittance, just to learn his now classic repertoire……a repertoire which includes such monumental concepts as those set to Bach’s Christmas and Easter Oratorios and St Matthew’s Passion. A few small grants have come the Weidman Company way – unfortunately they were not enough to endow the dancer-choreographer with a proper studio and decent living quarters – to keep alive, at least, such delightful slapstick comedies as “Flickers” (mounted by Weidman last year at Southern Connecticut College) and to present “Visualizations”, a captivating panorama of Denishawn days which Charles Weidman, Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham shared when first students and co-performers in the company established by Ruth St Denis and Ted Shawn.
The terrible vacuum caused in the hearts and minds of those who are bereft of the living presence of a great artist can never be filled. Those of us who studied under Charles, danced with him and knew him as adviser and friend, will feel that emptiness henceforth. Only the memories of his lovable personality and exciting leadership will help to keep his image before us.
But there are other ways to keep a dancer’s work alive, and modern means have been employed to some extent (not enough, of course) to reveal the wonders of Charles Weidman’s creativity. First, there is the craft of notating a dance. One system known as Labanotation has been used to record the exact movements of Weidman’s gripping “Lynchtown”, his lyrical Doris Humphrey-dedicated “Brahams Waltzes”, and the aforementioned “Flickers” and “Christmas Oratorio”. With additional funds, other works, remembered by dancers who originally performed them and by the present company (if held together) can be saved not only for the archives but for performance.
Film can be somewhat of a record, though not complete, by any means. To “read” a film for reconstruction purposes is very difficult as I have recently discovered in mounting an early Doris Humphrey work for the José Limón Dance Company. There are gaps in continuity and confusing angles caused by camera shots, as well as editing, that must be re-interpreted through the memory resources of those who performed the dance. José Limón, it should be said, was Charles Weidman’s most illustrious pupil, one who was never too proud of his own fame to admit that “Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman taught me everything I know”. Thus do many of us feel.
There is Charles’ oral history, done in the form of a biography taped by the Dance Collection of the New York Library of The Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. This will, in time, illuminate many dark corners of the artist’s creative and personal life.
With these modern means, let us trust that the spirit and unique accomplishments of a master of an art spawned in our country in the mid-twentieth century will be preserved for American dancers and audiences for centennials to come.
The following extract is from one of many articles written on Limón by Ernestine Stodelle.
‘José Limón Poet-Painter of the Dance’ (1970)
Next Saturday evening, José Limón, America’s finest male dancer-choreographer, will celebrate his 2oth anniversary of performing in the American Dance Festival held annually at Palmer Auditorium on the campus of Connecticut College in New London.
A summer resident of Connecticut since 1948, when the Connecticut College School of Dance was first established, Mr Limón has been the highlight of the school’s Festival programs. His superb dancing and imaginative choreography have earned him recognition throughout the United States and in many foreign countries where he has toured with his company under the auspices of the State Department.
This year, he shares the honors of the final weekend programs of the Festival’s 20th anniversary with the renowned Martha Graham, whose company will perform on Friday. For the closing performance of the Fesitval, both Miss Graham and Mr Limón will present works.
Tall, lean, dynamic Mexican-American José Limón is an aristocrat among dancers. Even in practice clothes consisting of a pair of tights and a T-shirt, scuffed ballet slippers and an old sweater flung about his neck, Limón has a distinction which sets him apart. Perhaps it was his Mexican heritage, in his case, in masterful strokes, has combined the sophisticate elegance of the Spaniard with the animal vitality of the Indian. Lithe as a panther (he moves like one on the stage), resonant of voice, meticulous of speech, Limón has a dignity that is impressive and a charm that is disarming. His young students look up to him with awe when he corrects them in his classes.
Yet Limón is no matinee idol. He plays no lovers’ roles on stage. In his ballets, he casts himself in “character” parts which portray man’s darker side: The murderous Moor in a dance version of Shakespeare’s “Othello”; Judas Iscariot in “the Traitor”, a dance-drama based on Judas’ betrayal of Christ; the despotic slave-king of Eugene O’Neill’s Barbaric fantasy, “Emperor Jones”, or Czar Peter the Great who tortured his son Alexis.
Villains have interested Limón as much, if not more than heroes. In a subtle and exciting way, which he alone of all male dancers has the power to do, Limón plays the sinner and tyrant in such a way as to the illuminate the saint and tragically oppressed. His Judas is a suffering betrayor, an inverted saint, whose heinous deed makes possible the coming of the glorious kingdom of Christ; his Emperor Jones, whose mania leads him to disaster, becomes a terrifying symbol of greed and its consequences. Thus does Limón tell the tale of man’s power to subdue villainy while he, himself, enacts the evil role.
But the dance is not drama. It uses the language of movement, not speech. And Limón is ever aware of the pitfalls of pantomime, when actors resort to “dumb show” to tell the audience what is happening. Inspired as they may be by great dramatic sources, Limón’s themes are nonliterally expressed. They tell their tale of imagery of dance motion; bold movement invention, vibrant rhythms, expressive gestures of the entire body.
Dancer first, dramatist second, José Limón has still another remarkable attribute: A highly developed visual sense which sees the stage as a gigantic canvas come to life in vivid, constantly changing designs. For José Limón started out in life as a painter, studying art at the University of California in Los Angeles, where he had come from his native Mexico, and he had never ceased seeing movement in terms of shape, line and color. With his painter’s eye, he has exerted a profound influence on modern dance composition. Even his teachers, the famous dancer-choreographers, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, were to learn something new in the realm of visual design from the vigorous, unpolished but innately cultured boy who came to their studio in 1929.
At that time, José Limón had never taken up dancing. Seeing a modern dance performance for the first time in his life, it struck him “as something of great emotional power that I must do”. Immediately he enrolled in the Humphrey-Weidman School. A struggle to master the impulses of a strong, but completely untrained physique followed, and with it many moments of despair for teachers and pupil alike…also for the members of the company, who, like myself, were often partnered by the seemingly untamed José.
Performing in ballets choreographed by Doris Humphrey, who was known as America’s greatest choreographer, and dancing with Charles Weidman in roles calling for expert timing and subtle characterization, José began to develop skills hitherto unsuspected in his dancing, which had, at best a savage beauty. Gradually, the boy’s sensitive personality and natural creativity began to shine through the rough exterior.
But it was not until José Limón presented his first solo in a studio recital by The Little Group which he formed with three other dancers from the main company – Letitia Ide, Eleanor King and myself – that his native gift for eloquent movement-design awakened a dance audience to his true potential. The solo was entitled “Two Preludes”, after the music by Reginald de Koven.
Using the dynamic structure of the rather ordinary music as a background for his composition, Limón performed movements that were startlingly effective as pure design. Taut lines of arms and legs extending upward and outward, swift cutting turns and a smooth stream of motion from one side of the stage to the other projected the innate power of abstract forms. Control and finesse and entered the dancer’s body without stripping away its “primitivism”. From that movement José Limón was considered a dancer of great promise.
Ten years of close association with the Humphrey-Weidman Company gave Limón the choreographic experience which opened up his own vistas of creativity. With characteristic humility and gallantry, José says, “Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman taught me everything I know”. But his contribution to them was immeasurable. Because of his amazing physique and his inborn intelligence, José stimulated his directors to visualise new and greater works in which he figured prominently.
His Own Company
The last years of Miss Humphrey’s life were devoted, for the most part, to her activities as artistic director of the José Limón Company, which the dancer formed in 1945. For them, she composed among other fine works the masterpiece “Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Meijas”. In this beautiful composition based on a by Garcia Lorca. José Limón danced the part of the mortally wounded matador. With consummate grace, the dancer evoked the pride, the passion and the dangers of the bull-fighter’s duel with “death in the afternoon”.
As a choreographer, Limón came into his own with “The Moor’s Pavane”, a work commissioned and presented in 1949 by the Connecticut College School of Dance. Here, for the first time in a major work, the choreographer brought into play his three-fold creative gift for blending dance, drama and visual design, In retelling the Othello story of fatal jealousy, Limón confined the action to only four characters, naming the The Moor, The Moor’s Wife, His Friend ad His Friend’s Wife, instead of Othello, Desdemona, Iago and Ameila. The ceremonious form of the sixteenth century pavane with its peacock-like posturing is used as a hypocritical façade behind which the quartet of dancers act out their drama of passionate intrigue.
Fortunately for those who have never had the opportunity to see “The Moor’s Pavane”, José Limón is reviving it in honor of the twentieth anniversary of the American Dance Festival. Mr Limón and his brilliant original cast – Lucas Hoving, Betty Jones and Pauline Koner – will perform.
When Limón turns to non-dramatic subjects, his inventiveness seems to be without end. “The Winged”, premiered last year in New London, in unsurpassed for imaginative treatment. At times humorous, at times lyrical, “The Winged” is a delightful description of those flying and fluttering friends and foes of man: the birds. Even the winged horse of poetry, captures the stage in the person of Louis Falco, Limón’s leading male dancer. Without resorting to mime or realism, Limón suggests the characteristics of feathered things through sheer dance movement: rapid foot beats, tremulous body vibrations, swirling turns and airborne entrances and exits. “The Winged”, also, will be presented on Limón’s evening of dances.
“The Moor’s Pavane” and “The Winged” represent two extremes of dance composition that José Limón has mastered: portraiture and mural. To paint a portrait, an artist has to have insight into a man’s heart and mind; he must have the ability to delineate character traits through details of facial expression, dress and gesture. “The Moor’s Pavane” is a quartet of such portraits. To draw the grand design of a mural, the artist must be able to think in terms of large-scale architectural forms: space in depth, mass groupings, interacting rhythms, “The Winged” with its view of nature as centuries-old experience is such an achievement.
The depth and breadth of Limón’s penetration into diverse mysteries of human experience have brought him offers and honors rarely extended to dancers. Some years ago, the Mexican government offered Limón a company and a theatre to work in permanently. (Limón refused, feeling his artistic allegiance was first to the United States). In 1960, Wesleyan University bestowed an honorary degree of “Doctor of Fine Art” on the dancer in recognition of his having “notably furthered the development of the dance as a contemporary art”.
Limón’s philosophy permeates every work he creates, but in no work is his message as forceful and clear as in “Missa Brevis”, a monumental ballet set to the exquisite choral music of the lat Hungarian composer, Zoltan Kodaly. Shocked by the endless war-ruins in devastated Poland, which he toured in 1957 with his company, Limón came home and started working on a ballet that would express his anger against man’s destructive impulses.
The painted backdrop of “Missa Brevis” shows the skeleton of a bombed-out cathedral: the women dancers are dressed in dark skirts and blouses with kerchiefs tied around their heads; the men wear ordinary working clothes. As the curtain rises, Limón is standing on the side of the stage, dressed in a suit, apart from the group. The expression on his face is one of despair mixed with compassion. Though anger was the starting point of Limón’s protest against man’s sin against his fellow men, “Missa Brevis” became a testament of faith in man’s spiritual power to survive and surmount death and destruction
“Man is capable of the most consummate fatuity and evil”, said Limón in his convocation speech to the Connecticut College School of Dance students this summer, “but man is also part angel, part divine”.
Is it the divine in man that Limón will praise in his new work entitled “Psalms” with score by Eugene Lester. Commissioned by the National Council of the Arts, it will have its world premiere on Saturday evening. Limón himself will not perform it, but his ace dancer, Louis Falco, will have the leading role. This splendid young dancer, who looks like the Greek God Mercury, is Limón’s protégé. Who knows but that Falco may follow in his master’s footsteps and become Limón’s successor to the title of America’s finest male modern dancer? His spectacular aerial work and classic beauty of line indicated much. Limón is silent on this score, but with his poetic vision he might well be priming the young man for the role.