In 1946, when Jose Limon founded his namesake dance company, little did he know that 70 years later and 43 years after his death, his troupe would still be going strong. Such was the legacy of a man described by his peers as “a pioneer in the field of modern dance and choreography.”
The Limon Dance Company will be performing some of its most famous dance numbers in the Mahalia Jackson Theater this Saturday night as the New Orleans Ballet Association closes out its 2014-15 season. The world-renowned dance troupe chose New Orleans to kick off its 70th season with a performance of its famous masterwork, “Missa Brevis,” in memory of the deaths and destruction resulting from Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago.
While traveling through Eastern Europe and seeing the World War II destruction that was still visible more than 10 years after the war’s end, Limon created this ballet from Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly’s “Missa Brevis in Tempore Belli.” Kodaly’s score was composed in a basement shelter while Budapest was being bombed by the Nazis.
According to the Limon Company’s longtime artistic director Carla Maxwell, “Jose’s choreography in this piece celebrates the human spirit overcoming hardships. And we found that, no matter where we bring it, it resonates. So, I couldn’t think of a more perfect piece to present here. It’s all about hope for the future and rising out of the ashes, which the people of New Orleans have certainly done.”
Under the musical direction of New Orleans Opera Chorusmaster Carol Rausch, a 40-member local chorus and organist will accompany the “Missa Brevis” performance. Students from NORDC/NOBA Center for Dance, a partnership between NORDC and the New Orleans Ballet Association, will join the Limon cast onstage.
Born in Mexico in 1908, Limon was inspired to take up dancing at the age of 21 while living in New York. He enrolled in the Humphrey-Weidman dance school founded and headed by Charles Weidman and Doris Humphrey in 1929. Within a year he was performing in musical revues on Broadway. In 1946 he founded his namesake company, hiring Humphrey as his first artistic director.
During his 40-plus-year career as a dancer, choreographer and company director, Limon created and/or choreographed nearly 100 dances, many of which centered around popular classical music compositions. “Missa Brevis,” along with “The Moor’s Pavane” (based on the “Othello” legend) and Franz Schubert’s “Mazurka” — all standard pieces in the company’s repertoire — are among the numbers that will be performed during Saturday’s performance.
Maxwell, who danced under Limon’s direction for the final seven years of his life, became the company’s principal dancer within a few years of her 1965 company debut. She was promoted to artistic director in 1978, the position she holds today.
Describing her late mentor, Maxwell said, “Jose saw us not as dancers but as people who speak through movement. He would often tell us, if we had no costumes, no lights and no music, and we’re out in front of people, those people should still understand what you’re dancing. They should feel the music in your body movements.
“So, in his work we’re working like a choir,” Maxwell continued. “Everybody is important. It comes out of a philosophy that Humphrey-Weidman was working on where you’re like a collective; a community of soloists. Everyone has their mission to do within the choreography, within the community, but it’s coming out of a group sense, not out of a star role sense.
“Jose wanted us to be people first,” Maxwell explained. “He never had a chorus line. There were dancers of all different sizes, shapes, energies. He was inspired by your dancing. That’s what was important to him. It wasn’t whether you fit a certain type or body type. I don’t think there’s a choreographer living who’s surpassed him in terms of what he has done with ensemble work.”
The Limon Dance Company performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, 1419 Basin St. Tickets are $24-$84; student, senior and group discounts available. For information, call (504) 522-0996 or visit www.NOBAdance.com .
Maxwell will give a pre-performance talk at 7:15 in the mezzanine level (M2) of the theater, 45 minutes before curtain. All ticketholders are invited to join her for the talk and Q&A session.