Keeping Limón's Legacy Alive

September 30, 2015

An international dance festival honors his company’s past and looks to the future.

“Do not bother to walk on stage unless you have the power to dominate it, and make it yours entirely,” wrote José Limón in An Unfinished Memoir. That’s exactly what a group of dancers plans on doing to celebrate the 70th anniversary of his legendary Limón Dance Company during the José Limón International Dance Festival, October 13–25 at The Joyce Theater in New York.

Guest artists from five companies will join Limón, including Royal Danish Ballet, Coreoarte, Bayerisches Staatsballett, sjDANCEco and American Repertory Ballet, along with eight schools and colleges from the U.S. and abroad. Fifteen of the choreographer’s masterworks will be performed, from his first surviving piece Chaconne (1942) to Carlota, which premiered two months before his death in 1972. Also featured are well-known works The Moor’s Pavane, There is a Time and Missa Brevis. “I’m hoping this festival will not only bring awareness to the scope of José’s work, but also show how other dancers are interpreting it,” says Carla Maxwell, who danced under Limón and became artistic director of the company in 1978. “When I think about his legacy, it’s much more than his dances. He invented a new dance language.”

Maxwell estimates Limón’s entire output of choreography, including what he created for the company, Broadway, Juilliard (where he taught) and other dance institutions, totals 104 works. Since his death, the company has also commissioned new works and acquisitions from such choreographers as Lar Lubovitch, Murray Louis, Jirí Kylián, Doug Varone and Garth Fagan, a change that keeps Limón moving forward while honoring its past. “We were a repertory company from the inception,” says Maxwell. “Limón invited his mentor, Doris Humphrey, to be his first artistic director. Together they created a community of strong individuals.”

This fall, the José Limón Dance Foundation, which oversees the company as well as licensing and education, began a residency at Dance Theatre of Harlem, sharing office, rehearsal and storage space in an effort to streamline both organizations. In May 2016, the company will tour to South Africa, Zambia and Mozambique as part of a monthlong cross-cultural exchange through DanceMotion USA.

Maxwell is preparing to step down as artistic director of the company and become legacy director of the foundation. The board has begun the process of looking for her replacement. For now, however, the focus remains on celebrating 70 years. “We have a vibrant community of artists that knew José and are working with me to insure his legacy continues for many more generations,” says Maxwell. “That’s the way we will pass the torch.” —Giannella M. Garrett