How does the generation pass on the torch to another in the all-too-perishable art of the dance. That is the challenge being addressed by the American University Dance Department this fall, where work has been proceeding on a "reconstruction" of Jose Limon's "Choreographic Offering."
Limon died in 1972, and though residues of his choreography remain in the memories of the dancers he trained, in notated scores and in films, bringing these pieces back to life in the form he envisioned for them poses enormous problems.
Risa Steinberg and Robyn Cutler, members of the still-flourishing dance company Limon founded, were brought in to "set" the work on 15 A.U. dance students, few of whom had ever seen Limon himself dance. Even Steinberg, who was principally responsible for the reconstruction, had never seen Limon perform in "Choreographic Offering," though she herself has danced in the work numerous times. With the A.U. students, the task was one of building from the ground up, from the basic premises of Limon's style to all the intricate technical and interpretive details of a large, complex choreographic structure.
The final result will be on display at A.U.'s Clendenen Theater in performances starting tonight (at 8 o'clock), repeating Friday and Saturday evenings and again Sunday afternoon at 5. The Limon work will be the centerpiece in the program of the annual A.U. fall dance concert.
In a rush to recapture the heritage and preserve the landmarks of modern dance, dancers in recent years have been attempting reconstructions on a broad scale. Works by Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, Mary Wigman, Charles Weidman and Doris Humphrey have been resurrected in an effort to stave off the erasures of time, in an art so dependent on memory.
"Choreographic Offering" is itself a kind of reconstruction. Composed in 1964 and premiered at the American Dance Festival that year, it was Limon's tribute to his teacher, mentor and long-time collaborator Doris Humphrey. Simultaneously, it was Limon's own effort to recapture the feeling, the techniques and the imagery of Humphrey's major works.
"Offering," set to the music of Bach's "A Musical Offering," is an original Limon composition, but it incorporated motifs, paraphrases and variations of movementsphrases from a host of Humphrey's pieces, including "New Dance," "Passacaglia," "Ruins and Visions," "Water Study" and others.
In its original form,it lasted an hour and a half. Just after Limons death, when his company was due to tour the Soviet Union, the dancers revived it in a condensed form that was far more practicable in terms of production. It is this shortened version, about 22 minutes in length, which Risa Steinberg has taught at A.U.
"It was rough," she said in a recent interview. "There was not time for these students, who were scarecely used to the idea of rehearsal, to learn the style first and then apply it to the piece. We had to do it all at once, with daily classes at 8:30 in the morning, and rehearsal at 12:45. We started on Sept. 6 - Robym Cutler was managing things for the first month - and it took us five weeks just to get to the point where the steps were memorized and we could do a run-through."
Steinberg relied heavily on a film of the work in fixing the choroegraphy in her own mind.
"I spent hours with the film," she said. "The thing is, I never really saw the work whole, as an audience does - I was always dancing in it. I knew the solos I had done and many of the other parts, but I really needed the film to fill in. The students also each had copies of the music tape, and spent a lot of time absorbing the Bach - Limon's choreography springs so deeply from the music that in dancing it you have to 'be' the music. Bach really tells you where to go, how to move in this piece."
At a recent run-through, I watched Steinberg, after correcting details of step, shape, energy and alignment, try to convey what was missing from the execution.
"You can't afford to forget that Limon, although he was a genius at inventing movement, also loved people. You've got to show you're a person in this work, not just an automation regurgitation movement.
"It's coming, but I feel some of you are scared to let it out. Don't keep it locked in. Sometimes, in the quintet, for example, you just won't even look at each other. But this is a work about people involved with other people, not just bodies moving around."
"Choreographic Offering" is an abstract dance; it tells no story and has no "characters." But in the surge of its groupings, the passion of its solos, and the tensions of its design one senses that humanistic concern which motivated both Limon and Humphrey as artists. Limon once wrote: "I want to dig beneath empty formalisms, and the slick surface; to probe the human entity for the powerful, often crude beauty of gesture that speaks of man's humanity."
A second run-through that same afternoon betrayed a dramatic change - a sudden new intensity and wloquence. Steinberg said: "The students have done just an incredible job - they've grown enormously and really blossomed. I'm more proud of them than I tell you."