Modern dance and José Limón (1908–1972) grew up together. In the late 1920s, younger dancers in America were attempting to define a style in contrast to classical ballet. The revolution was in its early stages when Limón gave up his youthful plan to be a painter and became a dancer instead.
In an unfinished memoir, Limón later wrote about the differences between ballet and modern dance. For one thing, he noted, modern dance responded to sociopolitical realities, such as the Great Depression, in a way that ballet did not. Choreographic movement no longer needed to be pretty but could be more naturalistic in the service of truth.
And while ballet seemed to defy gravity and suggest that the body could be lighter than air, modern dance seemed more honest:
“The weight of the body should be recognized and exploited. Its muscular effort was beautiful and should be revealed. Elevation, soaring into the air, would in consequence have more drama, more meaning. It would become a triumph, a conquest.”
Writing and reading were important to Limón. Several of his choreographic works were inspired by literary sources. He used the words of Ecclesiastes in There Is a Time (1956), a dance suite visualizing the idea of “a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted.” The Emperor Jones (1956), for an all-male ensemble, was suggested by Eugene O’Neill’s play of the same title.
In other works, Limón drew on his Mexican heritage. Danzas Mexicanas, a suite of five solo dances representing character types from Mexican history—Indian, conquistador, revolutionary, and so on—was composed in 1939. La Malinche (1949) was named for the indigenous slave mistress of Hernando Cortez, the conquistador who brought Mexico under the control of the Spanish empire.
Limón emphasized the intellectual and spiritual in his work, in hopes that his vision would exalt humanity. For an essay in The Modern Dance: Seven Statements of Belief (1966), he wrote: “I try to compose works that are involved with man’s basic tragedy and the grandeur of his spirit.” Danza de la Muerte (Dance of Death, produced in 1937), expressed his sympathy for the anti-Fascist Republicans of the Spanish Civil War. In Poland in 1957, he was inspired to create Missa Brevis, a tribute to the strength of citizens ravaged by World War II.
Two late works, Orfeo and Carlota, both produced in 1972, were meditations on love and loss, the latter revisiting the Spanish conquest of Mexico. The Limón Dance Company has remained active since José Limón’s death that same year. Prominent companies throughout the world have added his dances to their repertoires.
José Limón is one of four dancers honored on the Innovative Choreographers stamps, which are available now online and in Post Offices nationwide. You can read more about Limón and many other dance pioneers in the brand new (and simply beautiful) book,