While American modern dance was perceived in Limón’s lifetime as universal and individual with no debt to any particular culture, recent dance scholarship has revealed the depth of the contributions of artists from African, Asian, Indigenous, and Latinx communities to the foundations of modern dance. The U.S. State Department saw Limón’s status as an immigrant artist as the ideal opportunity to promote this notion of universality, sending him as an ambassador on a series of international tours in the 1950s and 1960s, and indeed much of Limón’s choreography grapples with humanistic themes that extend beyond borders and identity. However, interrogation of those issues inevitably came through his own mestizo cultural lens, underlining the importance of the immigrant voice in the development of the ultimate “American” art form, modern dance.
It was Limón’s trip to Warsaw as part of the European tour in 1957 that inspired Missa Brevis. In a letter written home on January 6th, 1958 Limón wrote that “Poland is an experience which I will not fully grasp, I think, for quite some time… What I saw and felt as an artist and as a human being is probably the most complex and devastating experience in my life.” Limón was overwhelmed by the aftermath of war evident in the four cities that he visited - Poznan, Wroclaw, Katowice and Warsaw - and was particularly impacted by the incredible atrocities endured by the Jewish people.
The commitments of the cultural exchange program far exceeded touring work. Limón and his company kept up a grueling schedule of receptions with local dignitaries, lectures and demonstrations for schools and educators and a range of extracurricular cultural activities. Limón, in particular, absorbed much of the ambassadorial mantle, frequently holding press conferences and meeting with heads of state.
This was increasingly the case during their Asian Tour. The company left the U.S. in August and did not return home until December 18th, 1963. The group often went several weeks without a day off and they were constantly travelling. Unknown to most of the dancers, Limón was also concealing ongoing health problems and was in considerable pain for much of the tour.