José Limón

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José Limón
José Limón.jpg
Limón performing Mexican Suite in 1944. Photograph by Barbara Morgan.
Born (1908-01-12)January 12, 1908
Culiacán, Mexico
Died December 2, 1972(1972-12-02) (aged 64)
Occupation Modern dancer, choreographer
Years active 1929–1969
Former groups José Limón Dance company
Dances The Moor's Pavane (1949)

José Arcadio Limón (January 12, 1908 – December 2, 1972) was a dancer and choreographer. In 1928, at age 20, he moved to New York City where he studied under Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. In 1946, Limón founded the José Limón Dance Company. His most famous work is called The Moor's Pavane (1949), based on Shakespeare's Othello.[1]

Early career[edit]

José Arcadio Limón was born January 12, 1908 in Culiacán, Mexico, the eldest of twelve children. In 1915, his family moved to Los Angeles, California. After graduating from Lincoln High School, Limón attended UCLA as an art major. He moved to New York City in 1928 to study at the New York School of Design. In 1929, he was inspired to dance after attending one of Harald Kreutzberg and Yvonne Georgi's performances.[2]

Limón enrolled in the Humphrey-Weidman school later that year and, just a year later, performed on Broadway. Later in 1930, Limón choreographed his first dance, “Etude in D Minor”, a duet with Letitia Ide. In addition to his the duet partner, Limón recruited schoolmates Eleanor King and Ernestine Stodelle to form "The Little Group". From 1932 to 1933, Limón made two more broadway appearances in the musical revue Americana and Irving Berlin's As Thousands Cheer, choreographed by Charles Weidman. Limón also tried his hand at choreography this year at Broadway's New Amsterdam Theatre. Limón made several more appearances throughout the next few years in shows such as Humphrey's New Dance, Theatre Piece, With my Red Fires, and Weidman's Quest. In 1937, he was selected as one of the first Bennington Fellows. At the Bennington Festival at Mill College in 1939, Limón created his first major choreographic work, titled Danzas Mexicanas. After five years, however, Limón would return to Broadway to star as a featured dancer in Keep Off the Grass under the choreographer George Balanchine.

In 1941, Limón left the Humphrey-Weidman company to work with May O'Donnell. They co-choreographed several pieces together, such as “War Lyrics” and “Curtain Riser”. During this time, Limón met Pauline Lawrence, who he would later marry on October 3, 1942. The partnership with O'Donnell dissolved the following year, and Limón created for a program at Humphrey-Weidman.

In 1943, Limón's made his final appearance on Broadway with Balanchine's Rosalinda, a piece he performed with Mary Ellen Moylan. He spent the rest of that year creating dances on American and folk themes at the Studio Theatre before being drafted into the Army in April 1943. During this time, he collaborated with composers Frank Loesser and Alex North, choreographing several works for the U.S. Army Special Services. The most well-known among these is Concerto Grosso.

Limón Dance Company[edit]

Attaining American citizenship in 1946, Limón formed the Limón Dance Company. When Limón began his company, he asked Humphrey to be the artistic director, making it the first modern dance company to have an artistic director who was not also the founder. The company had its formal debut at Bennington College, playing such pieces as Doris Humphrey's Lament and The Story of Mankind. Among the first members were Pauline Koner, Lucas Hoving, Betty Jones, Ruth Currier, and Limón himself. Dancer and choreographer Louis Falco also danced with the José Limón Dance Company from 1960–70, and Falco starred opposite to Rudolph Nureyev in Limon's Moor's Pavane on Broadway from 1974-75. While working with Humphrey, Limón developed his repertory with Doris Humphrey and established the principles of the style that he was to become the Limón technique. By 1947, the company had reached New York, debuting at the Belasco Theatre with Humphrey's Day on Earth. In 1948, the company first appeared at the Connecticut College American Dance Festival and would remain in residence each summer for many years. After choreographing The Moor's Pavane, it received the Dance Magazine Award for the year's most outstanding choreography. In the spring of 1950, Limón and his group appeared in Paris with Ruth Page, becoming the first American modern dance company to appear in Europe.

In 1951, Limón joined the faculty of The Juilliard School where a new dance division had been developed. He also accepted an invitation to Mexico City's Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, where he created six works. Between 1953 and 1956, he choreographed a number of shows and created roles in Humphrey's Ruins and Visions and Ritmo Jondo. In 1954, the Limón Company was one of the first to take advantage the U.S. State Department's International Exchange Program with a company tour to South America. The company later embarked on a five-month tour of Europe and the Near East and, again, to South America and Central America. It was during this time that Limón received his second Dance Magazine Award.

In 1958, Doris Humphrey, who had been the artistic director for the Limón Company, died and Limón took over her position. Between 1958 and 1960, Limón choreographed with Pauline Koner. During this time, he received an honorary doctorate from Wesleyan University. In 1962, the company returned to Central Park as the opening performance to New York's Shakespeare Festival. The next year, under sponsorship of the U.S. State Department, he toured the Far East for twelve weeks, choreographing The Deamon to a score by Paul Hindemith, who conducted the première.

In 1964, he went on to receive the Capezio award and was appointed the artistic director of the American Dance Theatre at the Lincoln Center. The following year, Limón appeared in an NET special titled The Dance Theater of José Limón. A few years later, he established the José Limón Dance Foundation as a not-for-profit corporation and received an honorary doctorate from University of North Carolina. In 1966, after performing with the company at the Washington Cathedral, Limón received a government grant of $23,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts. The next year, Limón choreographed Psalm, earning him an honorary doctorate from Colby College. He and his company were also invited to perform at the White House for President Lyndon B. Johnson and King Hassan II of Morocco. Limón's final appearances onstage as a dancer were in 1969, when he performed in The Traitor and The Moor's Pavane at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He created two more pieces during this time, and received an honorary doctorate from Oberlin College.

Later years[edit]

In 1970, Limón was diagnosed with prostate cancer. In the last years of his life, despite being stricken with cancer, he choreographed and filmed a solo dance interpretation for CBS. In 1971 he founded the little known Jose Limón Philadelphia Dance Theater, originally intended to become a second company. Sadly in December 1972, at the age of 64, José Limón died from cancer.[3]


During the course of his career, Limón created what is now known as the "Limón technique". According to the Limón Institute, the technique "emphasizes the natural rhythms of fall and recovery and the interplay between weight and weightlessness to provide dancers with an organic approach to movement that easily adapts to a range of choreographic styles."[4]

His style can still be seen in performances today. Dance companies such as the Doug Varone and Dancers company continue to teach Limón's style of dancing. Limón's own company is still active, with the express purpose of maintaining the Limón technique and repertory.[5]

In 1973, the José Limón Collection was given to the New York Public Library Dance Collection by Charles Tomlinson. Eleven years later, a book, entitled "The Illustrated Dance Technique of José Limón" was published, explicitly describing José Limón's technique. In 1997, he was inducted into the National Museum of Dance's Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame.


José Limón considered Isadora Duncan, Harald Kreutzberg, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman to be influential to his work and having birthed his style of dance. A former student of Doris Humphrey, it was viewing Humphrey in Inquest (1945) that Limon decided to focus his choreography on showing the beauty and tragedy in human life rather than choreography designed to be amusing and entertaining. Like Humphrey, his main goal was to express his personal relationship with the outside world through his movements in an organic manner. His technique was deeply influenced by Humphrey's ideas, for example, the "quality of body's weight"[6] which was represented with the fall and rebound. Also he was influenced by her "vocabulary of suspension and succession"[6] He invited Humphrey to become artistic director of his dance company.

Limón's technique is not codified, because he believed that a structured technique would limit creativity which was vital for his approach. His technique helped his students to find the unique personal qualities of their own movement. He used to say to his students "when you stop trying to be pretty ... you will be beautiful".[7] He emphasized the exploration of movement in its natural form. He believed that the modern dancer should “strive for complete use of the body as an instrument” and often choreographed works in the studio during rehearsal being inspired by the movements and abilities of the dancers instead of relying on pre-written choreography notes. He motivated his students always to "strive for simplicity and clarity without extraneous movement, superfluous energy or unwanted tension that would interfere with the original intent."[8]

He considered that the body was an instrument of communication and expression that could "speak". In his view, "The modern idiom has extended a range of expressive movement and communicative gesture tremendously. The modern dancer strives for a complete use of body as his instrument".[6] In his technique, "He used isolated parts of the body to 'speak' with individual qualities and referred to this idea as 'voices of the body'."[6] For example, he used the movement of the shoulder in different directions that initiated simultaneously the movement of the arms, torso, or legs. For him this represented a dialect, where the movement of one part of the body could have "a voice with a motivation behind it"[6] He compared the body to an orchestra, where one part of the body could represent one instrument and another part of the body could represent a different instrument independently, allowing multiple lines of movement to harmonize through different parts of the body. The use of the arms were very important to him, providing curved shapes that interact with space through the effort shapes. He also considered that breathing was indispensable because it allowed movement to flow continuously and to start from the center of the body. In his technique, he paid great attention to the movements of the chest, believing that to expand and retreat from the chest is where the center of emotion comes from. The legs were an extension of the torso. Most of the time, he used contraction with the torso. His trademark was the "inward and outward rotations of the knee."[7]


When Limon danced he showed his true feelings, a great passion, intensity, and mainly spontaneity. "Limon's choreography embodies the impulse and drive of his dancing, but it is clear that the Apollonian mind was there informing his thought and giving shape to his creation. He had great skill in developing and varying movement from a supreme economy of thematic material. His works based on theme and variation are so harmoniously conceived that it is hard to imagine any gesture, motion or choreographic element not being essential to the whole."[8] He was a genius choreographer who understood and played with the music perfectly. He combined his phrases with counterpoint "adding dimension to the music".[8] Not all the choreographers were able to combine so gratefully music with dance during the 20th century like him.

Limon believed should speak to of the human experience, "There is a dance for every single human experience". He felt his efforts to portray the human experience through dance were similar to that of Mexican dancers and the frescoes of painter Jose Clemente Orozco. He used gestures such as reaching, pulling, and grasping to communicate large emotions to audiences. Actions such as using a hand or shoulder forward or back it can lead into a turn, were not merely devices used to turn, but held a motivation or “voice” of its own. In Reaping from Day on Earth a flexed foot brings forth the imagery of a man bracing himself against a large object so that he may use more force to dig into the soil or cut the crops.

Limon believed that "Musicians are dancers and that dancers can only be good dancers when they are also good musicians".[9] He literally makes his dancers musicians in the duet A Time to Speak, A Time to Keep Silence. There is no traditional music accompanying the dancers in this duet from A Time to Heal, but rather the man’s solo clapping to their movements — clapping in uneven phrases. The man keeps metric rhythm while the woman keeps breath rhythm creating a juxtaposition between the two dancers.

While speaking on the human experience, inspiration for choreography came from numerous sources: Shakespeare’s Othello inspired in The Moors Pavane; Mexico’s Nahua woman who was the mistress of Hernan Cortes inspired La Malinche, biblical passages There Is a Time. Program notes accompanying The Moors Pavane comment on the state of man who is “caught in the pattern of tragic living”, while program notes for The Traitor (1954) state that the character Judas represents man who betrays both friends and loyalties out of their own fear. The Traitor was inspired by the McCarthy hearings.

Dionysian and Apollonian[edit]

In his dance and in his classes he motivated the existence of the Dionysian and Apollonian. Most of the time his dance was inclined mostly by the Dionysian but mainly his intention was to work with both. The combination of the opposite characters made his dance so interesting. José Limón mentioned: "My dance, therefore, would have only two characters, a protagonist and an antagonist, eternally opposed and irreconcilable. They would represent the conflict between authority and the rebel, orthodoxy and the heretic, order and chaos."[10]


Year Title
1930 Etude in D Minor
1930 Bacchanale
1930 Two Preldes
1931 Petite Suite
1931 B Minor Suite
1931 Mazurca
1932 Bach Suite
1933 Canción y Danza
1933 Danza (Prokofiev)
1933 Pièces Froides
1933 Roberta
1935 Three Studies
1935 Nostalgic Fragments
1935 Prelude
1936 Satiric Lament
1936 Hymn
1937 Danza de la Muerte
1937 Opus for Three an Props
1939 Danzas Mexicanas
1940 War Lyrics
1941 Curtain Raiser
1941 This Story Is Legend
1941 Three Inventories on Casey Jones
1941 Three Women
1941 Praeludium: Theme and Variations
1942 Chaconne
1942 Alley Tune
1942 Mazurca
1943 Western Folk Suite
1943 Fun for the Birds
1944 Deliver the gods.
1944 Hi, Yank
1944 Interlude Dances
1944 Mexilinda
1944 Rosenkavalier Waltz
1945 Concert Grasso
1945 Eden Tree
1945 Danza (Arcadio)
1946 Masquerade
1947 La Malinche
1947 The Song of Songs
1947 Sonata Opus 4
1949 The Moor’s Pavane
1950 The Exiles
1950 Concert
1951 Los Cuatros Soles
1951 Dialogues
1951 Antigona
1951 Tonantizintla
1951 The Queen’s Epicedium
1951 Redes
1952 The Visitation
1952 El Grito (Revised version of Redes)
1953 Don Juan Fantasia
1954 Ode to the Dance
1954 The Traitor
1955 Scherzo (Barracuda, Lincoln, Venable)
1955 Scherzo (Johnson)
1955 Symphony for Strings
1956 There Is a Time
1956 A King’s Heart
1956 The Emperor Jones
1956 Rhythmic study
1957 Blue Roses
1958 Missa Brevis
1958 Serenata
1958 Dances
1959 Tenebrae 1914
1959 The Apostate
1960 Barren Sceptre
1961 Performance
1961 The Moirai
1961 Sonata for Two Cellos
1962 I, Odysseus
1963 The Demon
1963 concerto in D Minor After Vivaldi
1964 Two Essays for Large Ensemble
1964 A Choreographic Offering
1965 Variations on a Theme of Paganini
1965 My Son, My Enemy
1966 The Winged
1967 Mac Aber’s Dance
1967 Psalm
1968 Comedy
1968 Legend
1969 La Piñata
1970 The Unsung (as a work in progress)
1971 Revel
1971 The Unsung
1971 Dances for Isadora
1971 And David Wept
1972 Carlota
1971 The Winds - For Philadelphia Dance Theater
1986 Luther


  1. ^ Pollack & Humphrey Woodford 1993, p. 31.
  2. ^ Limón 1998, p. 16.
  3. ^ Dunbar 2003, p. 135.
  4. ^ "Limón Institute". José Limón Dance Foundation. 2011-01-30. Retrieved 2011-03-22. 
  5. ^ "Heritage: Jose Limón". José Limón Dance Foundation. 2003-04-29. Retrieved 2011-03-22. 
  6. ^ a b c Dunbar 2003, p. 38.
  7. ^ Dunbar 2003, p. 39.
  8. ^ a b Dunbar 2003, p. 113.
  9. ^ Dunbar 2003.
  10. ^ Cohen 1966, p. 27.


  • Cohen, Selma Jeanne (1966). The Modern Dance; Seven Statements of Belief. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 978-0-8195-6003-2. 
  • Dunbar, June (2003). José Limón: The Artist Re-viewed. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-90-5755-121-5. 
  • Limón, José (1998). Garafola, Lynn, ed. José Limón: an Unfinished memoir. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 978-0-8195-6505-1. 
  • Pollack, Barbara; Humphrey Woodford, Charles (1993). Dance is a Moment: a Portrait of José Limón in Words and Pictures. Princeton Book Company. ISBN 978-0-87127-183-9. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Lewis, Daniel (1984). Lesley Farlow, ed. The Illustrated Dance Technique of José Limón. Princeton Book Company. ISBN 978-0-87127-209-6. 
  • Reich, Susanna (2005). Born to Dance: The Story of José Limón. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-689-86576-3.

External links[edit]