In 1967, José Limón, one of a handful of choreographic geniuses of the 20th century, fervently immersed himself in creating his last great ballet. Nine months later, his final masterpiece, entitled “Psalm,” emerged from a gestation period of intense rehearsals.
What fired his inspiration for “Psalm” was a novel about Jewish persecution, “The Last of the Just” by Andre Schwarz-Bart. Published in 1960, it explored the idea in Jewish folklore that each generation harbored 36 inconspicuous men — called the “Lamed-Vov” — who ensured the safety and survival of the world through their pure, selfless conduct and by shouldering the burden of the world’s sorrows. Specifically, “The Last of the Just” traced the lineage of these singular individuals, “the just men,” in the Levy family from the 12th-century pogrom in York, England, through the Holocaust.
From April 29-May 11, the Limón Dance Company will revive “Psalm” for its current season at the Joyce Theater. Carla Maxwell, the current artistic director of the company, was one of six dancers on whom Limón shaped the choreographic phrases for the ballet. “When José made this piece, he knew — and we didn’t — that he had just been diagnosed with prostate cancer, so I think it was in his mind to get all the material out of him that he possibly could,” Maxwell said in an interview with the Forward. Limón died less than five years later, in 1972.
Limón’s substantial contributions to modern dance included important works such as “Missa Brevis,” “There is a Time” and “The Moor’s Pavane.” Limón often focused on the transcendence of humanity, and was not particularly interested in any one religion. A Mexican immigrant, he sometimes jokingly referred to himself as a Catholic atheist. But he sought out the common moral threads of many traditions.
The final passage of “The Last of the Just” reads like a psalm, and may have generated the poetic heartbeat for Limón’s final ballet. In the book’s last chapter, the repeated phrase “And praised Be The Lord” is interspersed with the names of all the Nazi concentration camps: “And praised. Auschwitz. Be. Maidenek . The Lord. Treblinka . And praised. Buchenwald . Be. Mauthausen . The Lord. Belzec . And praised. Sobibor . Be. Chelmno . The Lord. Ponary ….”
It is not surprising, then, that Limón’s prime theme in “Psalm” is communal hope, supported by sublime choreographic and rhythmic structures. Limón’s original intention was to choreograph the piece to Igor Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms.” The musical rights to that score, however, were too expensive for a modern dance company’s modest budget, so Limón choreographed the work in silence until he could afford to commission an original score. “He beat on a metal chair to keep us together,” recalled Maxwell, “creating this incredible series of rhythm rituals.” For the 1967 premiere, Limón asked composer Eugene Lester to write a score for percussion instruments and a baritone soloist, singing in Hebrew.
When contemplating a revival of “Psalm,” Maxwell said that she felt a weightier musical composition would enhance the dance. “The score was very good, but I never felt it had the same power as the choreography,” she said. “It was more a tapestry to support the dance. I wanted a new score.” The revised version of “Psalm” refers back to Limón’s original notes on the dance; he wanted a choral work that could replicate the texture and vibrancy of Stravinsky’s symphony. Maxwell commissioned a score from composer Carl Magnussen that retains much of the original rhythmic and metric framework in cantata form for a full choir, baritone soloist and 10 instruments. The text comprises seven psalms from the Bible in Latin.
“Psalm” places 13 dancers on stage, including one male soloist who interacts with the chorus of dancers. As in much of Limón’s choreography, the individual dancers are integral to the communal ensemble, and the chorus is never a mere chorus line. Limón made a distinct departure, however, by conceiving the piece as an abstraction. His previous works leaned toward a more literal vein, like his most famous ballet, “The Moor’s Pavane,” which brilliantly and concisely relates the tale of Othello with only four dancers working within the configuration of a pavane, a stately court dance performed by couples. In “Psalm,” the symbol of the “Lamed-Vov” is clear, and Maxwell remembers Limón referring to the male soloist as “the burden bearer” and the two women consoling him as the “expiatory figures” who bless and purify him. But the power and drama of the piece lie in the magnificent ensemble formations, creating a distinct metaphorical dimension.
“As is true in all of José’s work, the group is always there to bear witness to his statement, to support him, nourish him, comfort him,” Maxwell said. “What he is going through, the group is going through, but he is making the statement.” At the start of the dance, the soloist blends into the group, then is revealed, then disappears, returns to the group celebration, then emerges for a final choreographed soliloquy.
Limón’s movement vocabulary is simple without being simplistic. In “Psalm,” walking, running and jumping weave throughout the choreographic fabric, building and blossoming in constantly changing patterns. “The dancing he created for the group is just phenomenal,” Maxwell said. “It contains some of the most virtuosic ensemble dancing ever created.” The virtuosity extends to the acoustical rhythms of the steps, which underscore the ritual complexity of the piece.
What has also made Limón’s choreography so universally loved — and this is amply evident in “Psalm” — is the sheer beauty and fluidity of the movement. The arms unfold outward from the center of the body, the feet use the floor for both grounding and leaping, the torsos bend, and space is a limitless universe for kinetic exploration. Each phrase grows organically from the next. And individual personalities emerge just as honestly as the choreography that buoys them. With its dynamic expressions of joy and gravity, Limón’s style makes modern dance accessible to anyone.
Thirty-five years after its premiere, “Psalm” seems more relevant and compelling than ever in a world rife with spiritual challenges. This year also marks the 25th anniversary of Maxwell’s tenure as artistic director of the Limón company. To honor Limón, she wanted to give “Psalm” the recognition it was due. “This is one of Limón’s unrecognized masterpieces, right up there with the greatest of his works,” she said. “I wanted people to see the power of this work.”
Just as the Jews in “The Last of the Just” face death in the crematorium, “Psalm” projects strong images of fire throughout the progression of the piece. The work ends with the group in the middle of the stage, hands flickering like flames, as if in a crucible. The soloist circles around them. “It’s similar to the idea of firing a pot to make it strong,” Maxwell said. “The image is of people burning in the flames, but the power and strength of their commitment and belief will outlive them.” In his notes, Limón stated, “The choreographic treatment as I envision it would be an evocation of the heroic power of the human spirit, triumphant over death itself.”