Life and death are clasped in a tipsy waltz in Lar Lubovitch's "Recordare" ("Remember"), a boisterous yet ultimately softhearted work given its world premiere Wednesday by the Limon Dance Company. In a series of vignettes drawing on the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration, the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater stage was peopled (stretching the term, perhaps) by dancing skeletons, a jelly-bellied devil and Death himself, a saucy, naughty trickster. But get beyond the gaping skull masks and bright, folksy costumes that made the work so off-kilter and funny, and there was a tender tribute to the balm of religious salvation.
The company commissioned the work as part of its effort to acquire new choreography to complement its core repertoire, the works of founding choreographer Jose Limon. Next year, the company, which continued on after Limon died in 1972, will mark its 60th anniversary. It has existed longer without Limon than it did with him.
Clearly, the plan put together by Carla Maxwell, the former dancer who has led the troupe since 1978, is a sound one: to preserve Limon's works while adding existing dances from other choreographers and commissioning new works from established artists and emerging ones. However much her guidance has succeeded in the general view, though, on the basis of this two-night engagement's uneven program, it is not entirely solid in the particulars.
"Recordare," created with an eye to the forthcoming anniversary season, left the strongest impression, and not just because it was the finale. It touches on several aspects of Limon's biography -- most obviously, the cultural and religious heritage of the Mexican-born choreographer. Also, Limon knew about death. Growing up poor in Mexico, and even after the family moved to the American Southwest, he saw five of his 12 siblings die in infancy. When he was 18, his mother also died, weakened by poverty, sickness and so many babies.
Lubovitch, a prolific choreographer of extraordinary versatility (he has worked on ice rinks, on Broadway and for major ballet companies as well as for his own troupe), did his homework. He incorporates the dance technique Limon created and in which Lubovitch himself was trained: the bold, rounded shapes; the spongy, deep knee bends; the regal carriage of the arms. With its crew of rustics busying themselves with a pageant to honor El Dia de los Muertos, the work's opening recalls "El Penitente" by Limon contemporary Martha Graham, which was similarly inspired by a primitive morality play. Lubovitch's take, however, relies more on spectacle and farce, where Graham was -- well, you can hardly compare the two; no one can combine grandeur, abstraction and intimacy as she did.
Lubovitch goes for pointed wit and a rich visual display, like a naive painting in motion. There are skeleton mariachi players. A drunken caballero swoons for a buxom barmaid who lowers her fan to reveal -- yikes! -- she's Death with falsies. A newlywed couple in bed are set upon by Death wielding a meat cleaver. Whack -- he buries it in the husband's skull. The wife prays profusely over his body, and on waddles a cardboard Virgin. A few perfunctorily sprinkled flower petals later, and the man springs back into bed with the missus. Talk about your resurrection.
Lubovitch has more than jokes to offer here. The tone is tart and the pacing is swift, yet there is genuine feeling in the ending, which recognizes the deeper mysteries of the belief system at the core of the festival.
"Recordare" provided a much-needed boost to a program that otherwise felt flat. Jiri Kylian's "Evening Songs" opened the evening with a gorgeous choral recording of parts of Dvorak's song cycle of the same name. But Kylian's choreography, the simple patterns and repetitions that were meant to seem Shaker-like and prayerful, was never convincing. He showed us only outward signs of devotion -- heads bowed, the heavy stamp of a foot or the thump of a fist on the chest, at some rhythmically significant moment -- but not the inner transformation. We didn't go through the process with the dancers, didn't see their spirits moved -- we saw only the after-effect, and it felt like an act.
The dark wit of cartoonist Edward Gorey was the inspiration for "The Ubiquitous Elephant" by company member Jonathan Riedel. It was a curious undertaking, focusing on a mysterious man who crashes a family gathering and bequeaths to them -- what? A sense of fun, it seems, but they already had that; their little soiree had been overrun with slapstick gags.
Riedel has an affinity for cornball humor, and the Guest, danced by Francisco Ruvalcaba, was full of interesting, slippery moves. But this work was heavy on the pratfalls and light on resolution, and felt out of place.
Following on its heels was a suite from Limon's "A Choreographic Offering," and one could hardly imagine a worse position for this lovely work with its clear, open style and rhythmic sweep. (It is accompanied by Bach's "A Musical Offering.") The dancers seemed tired by this point, though Kathryn Alter danced with stately expansiveness in her solo. Limon created this work in 1964 as a tribute to his teacher and mentor, Doris Humphrey. It looks a bit dated now, so rooted in Humphrey's style from early in modern dance's formation, but you can't mistake the depth of feeling behind it. Here was the true spiritual center of the evening, buried.