Local dancers team up with the Limón Dance Company for Missa Brevis
In the dance room of Sacramento High School, a group of dancers stands motionless. Facing in opposite directions, they rest their hands on each other’s shoulders to form a linked cluster of bodies. The music begins: pious voices rising in hymn over a somber pipe organ. With measured grace, the dancers move as one.
Today is just one of many intensive rehearsals for the nine local dancers chosen to perform with the Limón Dance Company in an upcoming production of legendary choreographer José Limón’s Missa Brevis.
Created in 1958 after a visit to war-torn Poland, the piece reflects Limón’s admiration for the Polish people, their “heroic serenity,” as he put it, and humble determination to rebuild their lives after World War II. Its tension comes from a solitary figure (originally danced by Limón himself) struggling for a sense of belonging. Set to Zoltán Kodály’s 1945 composition “Missa Brevis in Tempore Belli” (“Short Mass in Time of War”), Limón’s tribute is at once mournful and celebratory, exalting in themes of spiritual and humanistic faith.
Among the local dancers participating is Linda Bair, artistic director of the Linda Bair Dance Company and a UC Davis visiting lecturer.
“The most challenging, and exciting, part,” Bair says of her experience thus far, “is working with another’s vision, doing justice to this legendary artist’s work of art.”
The Limón style of contemporary dance is based on principles introduced by Doris Humphrey, a key figure in the modern-dance movement and the Limón Dance Company’s founding artistic director. Humphrey’s “fall and recovery” style works with the body’s natural responses to gravity, integrating organic movement with a clear-end result. In her own company, Bair encourages an individualistic approach to dance, allowing for variations in how each dancer’s body interprets movement. With Missa Brevis, however, the dancers must shed their individual interpretations in order to conform to the group dynamic.
“There’s no room for flexibility in this piece,” Bair says. “The relationship to the other dancers and to the music is very precise. Not just ‘arm goes here and leg goes there,’ but what’s the weight, dynamic and quality of the movement. And then we not only have to dance that from the outside, we must find a dynamic place within from which to express dignity and humility.”
Shaina Campbell, a student at Roseville’s Northern California Dance Conservatory, echoes the challenge of adapting to Limón’s unique style.
“This technique is not showy,” says Campbell, who, at 15, is the youngest dancer joining the company. “It’s more about the feeling, the passion this community had to move forward.”
Under the guidance of Limón artistic director Carla Maxwell, founding company member Ann Vachon and soloist Raphaël Boumaïla (dancing the role of the solitary figure), the guest dancers have received both masterful technical instruction and biographical insight. Together they represent a people connected by fear and hope, responding to the ravages of war by turning to the comfort of community. In contrast, the outsider character is torn between the peace he sees in the people around him and the conflict he feels as a man apart—a theme paralleled in Limón’s own life.
Dance became a religion for Limón, Bair explains, noting the loss of his mother, who died in childbirth when Limón was 18, as the catalyst for his break with the Catholic Church. “He blamed the church and his father for his mother’s death, and turned to dance as a replacement. He spoke about dance and movement with a sense of spirituality. The way I understand it, his whole life felt torn between wanting God in his life, what he had with the Catholic Church, and dealing with the anger and torture he felt when he left.”
The longing for both acceptance and autonomy is something anyone can relate to. For Campbell, it translates to the social pitfalls of high-school life.
“There are definitely the cliques,” she says, “and some people want to fit in but they can’t, so they feel excluded from that group experience.”
On a broader scale, the piece speaks to the human need for security against the unknown, and the ways in which society responds to tragedy. At tonight’s rehearsal, the dancers illustrate one possible method for coping with loss: They form a human chain, with each dancer reliant on the other for equilibrium.
“Limón made Missa Brevis years after World War II, in the shadow of that devastation,” says Bair. “Now we’re post-9/11 and in the midst of a war, and we’re dealing with how to face those same things—how to rebuild and go on and speak for a kind of community while re-evaluating our cultural values. Fifty years later, the piece is still timely.”