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José Limón: The Mestizo as Ambassador: Limón and Mexico


Although Limón made a significant body of work rooted in his Mexican heritage early in his career, in Mexico critics did not consider his movement authentic to the dance traditions of that country. They did, however, see a direct correlation between the experimentations of Limón in dance and the profound visual arts movement that had emerged in Mexico in the mid 20th century.

Several writers, including Salvador Novo, noted the painterly quality of Limón’s choreography and Gabriel del Rio of El Universal specifically referenced a similarity in styles between Limón and Orozco, fitting as Orozco’s work had inspired Limón’s early opus, Danzas Mexicanas.

Many of Limón's earliest works were shaped by the conflictive cultural and religious ties to warfare. The soundscapes and visuals of Mexican history through the perspective of the Revolution made its way into Danzas Mexicanas (1939), with Danza de la Muerte (1937) motivated by the Spanish Civil War through a suite of dances, This Story is Legend (1941) as a retelling of Hernando de Soto’s “discovery” of the Mississippi, and La Malinche (1949) speaking to Mexico’s history of Spanish colonialism.

An invitation in 1950 from Carlos Chávez, the director of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (INBA) in Mexico City, proved to be the turning point in Limón’s life. It brought him back into the orbit of Miguel Covarrubias whom he had first encountered in New York in the 1930s and opened him up to Covarrubias’ investigations of pre-Columbian history, his presence in the visual arts scene and his knowledge of Mexican mythology and architecture.


José Limón in front of the mural "Katharsis" by José Clemente Orozco, Photographed at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, ca. 1950s.

*MGZEB 95-5500, José Limón and Pauline Lawrence Limón Photograph Files,Courtesy of NYPL's Digital Collections, Image ID 58285510


Miguel and Rosa Covarrubias had married in 1930. Rosa had been performing in New York City as dancer for numerous revues and on tour in 1916. Miguel had moved to New York City in the 1920s to pursue his career as a cartoonist. They met in 1924 and were married in 1930. After their marriage Rosa abandoned dance for artistic pursuits as a painter and photographer and would be featured in in many exhibitions and published in books by Miguel, while Miguel continued to be a highly sought after artist in the Untied States and abroad.

The pair left the states in 1935 and moved to Miguel's hometown outside Mexico City entering the circles of notable artists including Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. They quickly became preeminent figures in the cultural development of Mexico through the 1930s and 40s. It was at their personal high point that José Limón entered the scene to develop original works for INBA's new Dance Department that was being developed by Miguel and Rosa. 




Watercolor painting of two figures, one resting on the shoulder of the other. On the margins are strokes of paint and an illustration of a foot.

Miguel Covarrubias designs for "Tonantzintla," by Miguel Covarrubias, c. 1951

*MGZGA Cov M Ton 2, Courtesy of NYPL's Digital Collections, Image ID 58285874.

Watercolor panning of one figure in elaborate colorful dress and headpiece.

Miguel Covarrubias designs for "Tonantzintla," by Miguel Covarrubias, c. 1951

*MGZGA Cov M Ton 1, Courtesy of NYPL's Digital Collections, Image ID 58285873.

Wide shot a a stage with a central dancer posing on one foot holding a series of ropes, surrounded by multiple dances with the ends of those ropes.

José Limón and Ballet Mexico in "El Grito," Unknown photographer, c. 1952.

*MGZEB 80-3247, Limón Choreography: Photographs, Vol. 6. Courtesy of NYPL's Digital Collections, Image ID 58285604.

Six people, five men in suits and one woman in a dress, standing in a line talking while posing for a photograph.

José Limón with Directors of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, including Julio Prieto, Leonor Llach, Miguel Covarrubias, Luis Sandi, and Salvador Novo. c. 1951.

*MGZEB 95-5500, José Limón and Pauline Lawrence Limón Photograph Files, Courtesy of NYPL's Digital Collections, Image ID 58285524.

Ten young children stand in a line, with hands resting on their shoulders, while an adult man sits behind them. They appear to be singing.

José Limón with Tarascan Indian Children in Janitzio, Michoacán, Mexico by Rosa Covarrubias, c. 1950s.

*MGZEB 95-5500, José Limón and Pauline Lawrence Limón Photograph Files, Courtesy of NYPL's Digital Collections, Image ID 58285516.

A close-up shot of a large crowd of people standing outdoors with banners hanging nearby.

José Limón at a festival in Mexico, Unknown photographer, c. 1950s

*MGZEB 95-5500, José Limón and Pauline Lawrence Limón Photograph Files, Courtesy of NYPL's Digital Collections, Image ID 58285526.



During his Mexico City residency Limón eagerly immersed himself in Mexican cultural traditions, including community celebrations, national holidays, and local festivities. He would visit local mercados, smaller towns outside of the city, and historical sites, providing an opportune (re)connection with his cultures. His cherished friends, Miguel and Rose Covarrubias, served as local hosts for many of these outings, as did Rosa Reyna, Limón’s main dance partner in Mexico.

1950 would ultimately be considered the golden age of modern dance in Mexico with Miguel Covarrubias, Carlos Chávez, and José Limón hailed as the leading triumvirate. The works Limón created during his residency included Cuatro Soles, an exploration of pre-Columbian mythology, Diálogos, an examination of conquest in Mexican history, El Grito, a social justice commentary, Tonantzintla, a Mexican Baroque expression, and Antígona, based on the Greek tragedy. In speaking about such subjects through his art in the 1950s, while in intercambio with his cultures— engaging diasporic connections across borders—Limón makes a timely statement in Mexico’s cultural history, playing a role in forming and promoting a post-revolution dance identity worth considering.

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