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José Limón: The Mestizo as Ambassador: Limón and Conflict

 

Humphrey and Limón briefly parted ways during World War II, first to facilitate Limón teaming up with May O’Donnell for a touring partnership and then lengthened when Limón was conscripted into the army. However, when Limón was discharged and he set up his own company in 1945, he invited Humphrey to serve as its artistic director. During this period Humphrey choreographed star vehicles for Limón in Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías (1946) and Day on Earth (1947) and Limón dug deeper into his Mexican and mestizo identity with La Malinche (1949).

 


 

Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman were experiencing difficulties in the early 1940s when Limón took May O’Donnell up on an offer to work with her on the West Coast. A former dancer for Martha Graham, O’Donnell and Limón partnered for over two years with O’Donnell’s husband, Ray Green, serving as manager and composer for their works. Limón and O’Donnell built a tight repertory that included both of their choreography, the apex of which was On American Themes (1941). On American Themes actually comprised of four works - Curtain Raiser, This Story is Legend (which investigated Hernando De Soto’s crossing of the Mississippi), War Lyrics and Three Inventories of Casey Jones (which Limón originally choreographed for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York).

War Lyrics, in particular, had an interesting lineage as it was commissioned by the Bay Area sculptor, Claire Falkenstein, who also designed the costumes, and featured text by the playwright William Archibald. In the work Limón danced the role of The Soldier and O’Donnell danced three distinct parts; The Nurse, The Wife and The Prostitute. When Limón and O’Donnell parted ways, she kept the piece in her active repertory without the male part and renamed the work Three Women. Performed against the backdrop of World War II, On American Themes’ exploration of immigration, industry and war captures a specific moment in history, but War Lyrics, which articulates the experience of war from the experience of the women left behind, casts a longer shadow.

 

Single dancer in army fatigues and helmet, with machete held above his head.

José Limón in "Deliver the Goods," Unknown photographer, c. 1944.

*MGZEB 80-3247, Limón Choreography: Photographs Vol. 4, Courtesy of NYPL's Digital Collections, Image ID 58285588.

Single dancer with machete held above head, surrounded by twelve others holding machetes to his chest and back.

José Limón in "Deliver the Goods," Unknown photographer, c. 1944.

*MGZEB 80-3247, Limón Choreography: Photographs Vol. 4, Courtesy of NYPL's Digital Collections, Image ID 58285590.

Headshot of a man in garrison cap and military dress uniform with neck tie.

José Limón in uniform by Gerda Peterich, c. 1943.

*MGZEB 95-5500, José Limón and Pauline Lawrence Limón Photograph Files, Courtesy of NYPL's Digital Collections, Image ID 1697156

Two dancers. Left hand one is in a long stride, while right hand one has a leg perched on a box, straddling the other.

José Limón and May O'Donnell in "War Lyrics" c. 1940.

 *MGZEB 80-3247, Limon Choreography: Photographs Vol. 14, Photographer Unknown. Courtesy of NYPL's Digital Collections, Image ID 58285885

Two dancers, One in foreground in a wide twisting stance. Second stands above, embracing the hand of the lower dancer.

José Limón and May O'Donnell in "War Lyrics" c. 1940.

 *MGZEB 80-3247, Limon Choreography: Photographs Vol. 14, Photographer Unknown. Courtesy of NYPL's Digital Collections, Image ID 58285879

Limón’s letters to his wife, Pauline Lawrence, during his time in the army reflect resignation and frustration in equal measure. He was very concerned about maintaining his conditioning, technique and strength without access to regular classes and performance. In a letter from 1943 he writes, “The cold viciousness of the human species has nearly robbed me of all hope of ever being an artist again. I say almost - I know that it won’t die utterly, even with all this stupid madness which seems so overwhelming. But God knows when it will end and where will my instrument be by then?” Limón did, however, manage to find his way into musical revues and plays staged by the army, painting scenery, building sets and, on occasion, choreographing the performances from Deliver the Goods (1944) and Song of the Medics (1944).  


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