Inspiring & relevant: ‘José Limón: A Life Beyond Words’ at 49th Dance Film Festival 1

Dance · Film
photo by Barbara Morgan

It was time very well spent, in my living room, viewing one of the many attractive offerings of the Dance Film Festival, ihat kicks off July 16 (in person, bring a mask) at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center. But, wait, world citizens, the Festival features streaming fodder as well.

One film, “José Limón, A Life Beyond Words” (2001), with its marvelous title so fitting for an introverted artist, concerns the Mexico-born, Los Angeles-reared, New York-trained dancer/choreographer who died in 1972. The film’s admirable direction and smooth editing is by Malachi Roth. Ann Vachon was a co-director. The narrative, told in scrupulously restored footage primarily in black-and-white, lending granularity and gravitas, tours seamlessly through Limón’s time-and-place. Ample coverage is devoted to early 20th century, and the onset of the disruptive Mexican Revolution into which Limón was born as the eldest of 13 children. Being part of this diaspora would remain his life’s central trauma. The family’s trek north-bound, by train, by foot, by truck, gets your attention — it’s continuing right now. That Limón spent his entire youth into young adulthood in East Los Angeles, is given short shrift, but we’re used to that by now. L.A. is not really a place, right? It’s a kind of way station. I addressed the bending of Limón’s brand as the Mexican choreographer in 2006 in La Opinion, the Spanish-language newspaper of Los Angeles. I felt so strongly about Limón’s Los Angeles roots that I spent time trying to encourage the company to relocate here. I still think it is a good idea.

It’s such a fantastic tale about this rootless young man, having moved to New York City to practice as a painter, attended a dance concert and found his calling. Dance, obviously, changed his life. It also changed the lives of his many dancers, students, and the audiences who were seized by his dark, moody, masculine presence. His years dancing with the Humphrey-Weidman Company are represented by miraculous historic footage—only, would that the filmmakers had delved a tad further into Doris Humphrey’s exceptional coaching of burgeoning choreographers (she was an co-founder and artistic advisor to the Limón Dance Company at its launch in 1946). Eleanor King, arguably Humphrey’s greatest female protégée, wrote in detail about her coaching sessions with Humphrey; I happened upon this material while researching yet another of Humphrey-Weidman’s stellar choreographic offspring, Jack Cole.  

Snippets of Limón’s masterly works, so marvelously formal yet infused with deep emotion, are on view. He was far from the dancer of the vacant stare. That came after him. He was intense. In sage voice-overs, experts provide background for most of the works; they include The Moor’s Pavane, The Emperor Jones, A Choreographic Offering, Missa Brevis, and The Unsung.

The talking heads are wonderful; I enjoyed hearing from his devoted lead dancers, Clay Taliaferro, Lucas Hoving, of course Betty Jones and Pauline Koner, as well as the lesser-known Nona Shurman, a Humphrey-Weidman dancer who closely observed the closed-off Limón. Bill T. Jones contributed an appreciation of how Limón brought important diversification to the then predominantly white world of modern dance. Someone who ‘brings it’ is dance critic Deborah Jowitt. We love seeing any dance critic in a dance documentary. And Jowitt is so good.

This is not a new film. It dates from 2001. It’s an old-school dance documentary about old-school modern dance. But it is high-quality, serene, engaging, and worthwhile.

José Limón: A Life Without Words | Dance on Camera Festival | virtual programming here

One comment on “Inspiring & relevant: ‘José Limón: A Life Beyond Words’ at 49th Dance Film Festival

  1. Marilyn Klaus Jul 13,2021 4:29 pm

    My interest is more than piqued. I see the film can be viewed starting Friday at noon. I look forward to watching it! Thank you so much for writing the article.

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