CARLA MAXWELL is a legacy keeper. Since 1978, she has been safeguarding a body of classic modern dance works, those of second-generation modern dance pioneer Jose Limon. "It's a paradox," Maxwell says of her mission to maintain the repertory of a choreographer who died more than 30 years ago, while also commissioning new works for the 15-member Limon Dance Company. "Our society has programmed us for new, new, new -- even what's done yesterday is seen as old," she says.
Beloved for their clarity and theatrical inventiveness, Limon's works are imbued with a communal spirit that makes them as relevant today as they were for generations past. "In defining what we're saving," Maxwell says, "we have a very powerful technique. It's now being recognized as one of the major modern classic techniques of the world." She explains that Limon's movement derives from the center of the body. Like that of the early moderns -- Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham foremost among them -- the basis of the Limon technique lies in centrality of the core body to initiate all movement. "This prepares you for more than just Limon works," Maxwell explains. "There's an attitude toward performance. It's a whole gestalt, presenting the human being by using human thoughts expressed through movement. Because the breath is the initiation of most of the movement we do, it affects your posture, your character, your persona. It's a technique of action: the how and why of movement. Nothing is arbitrary."
The Limon Dance Company opens Thursday during the Kennedy Center's AmericArtes Festival, six weeks of music, dance and theater programming that this year focuses on South America's Andean region and the spirit of Mexico. The works on the dance company's program will span more than 50 years. From one of American modern dance's founding mothers, Humphrey's 1949 "Invention" presents a choreographic study that captures composer Norman Lloyd's score in dance. There's a new work, "Phantasy Quintet," by Limon dancer-turned-choreographer Adam Hougland. But the evening's anchor to the Mexican American choreographer's legacy will be a pair of Limon masterworks. "The Moor's Pavane" distills Shakespeare's "Othello" into a quartet of dramatic intrigue and treachery. "Psalm," based on Andre Schwarz-Bart's 1959 novel "The Last of the Just," concerns the search for one righteous man in response to the Holocaust. Created in 1967, "Psalm" deals with morality and human frailty on an abstract level through ritual, rhythm and choral song. In choreographic notes found during Maxwell's reconstruction of the work, this statement by Limon stands out: "The choreographic treatment as I envision it would be an evocation of the heroic power of the human spirit, triumphant over death itself. The objective is to achieve dramatic power through abstract choreographic visions."
Revising "Psalm" tested Maxwell's artistic mettle. As a dancer, Maxwell participated in its creation. Limon created the dance without music because he could not afford the rights to the piece he wanted to use, she explains. A score was commissioned later, but it was considered unwieldy and 20 minutes was eventually cut. Maxwell glimpsed brilliance beyond the problems. "I see real choreographic departures in this Limon work. I think the piece has some of the most virtuosic ensemble dancing ever made."
Last year, she commissioned a new score from composer John Magnussen. "I don't feel it's not Jose's dance -- it's what Jose intended his message to be." And, ultimately, little was lost since Maxwell used some of the cut material in "Etude," her solo study of Limon's technique. "I do think I captured what Jose was doing and tied the threads [of 'Psalm'] together."
LIMON DANCE COMPANY -- Performs Thursday and March 14 at 7:30 at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. 202-467-4600.