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José Limón: The Mestizo as Ambassador: Later Life

Male dancer in center moves toward the camera with arms crossed. A dancer on either side grasps his hands and is moving with him.

Betty Jones, José Limón, and Ann Vachon in "Missa Brevis" at the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., by Warren Ballard, ca. 1958.

*MGZEB 80-3247, José Limón Choreography: Photographs Vol, 7, Courtesy of NYPL's Digital Collections, Image ID 58285634

Wide shot from ceiling to floor shows a group of dancers in motion with arms outstretched. Ornate pulpit and decorative chandeliers surround them.

Overhead shot of "Missa Brevis" in the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., by Warren Ballard, ca. 1958.

*MGZEB 80-3247, José Limón Choreography: Photographs Vol. 7, Courtesy of NYPL's Digital Collections, Image ID 58285650.


In the last decade of his life Limón was consumed with articulating the human experience. His work rewove themes of fragility and mortality, of despair and hope. In The Demon (1963) he explicitly examines that most human of conditions, imperfection. Staged as a battle between a demon and an angel, the piece is interesting because it eludes the binary states that are typically ascribed to good and evil. Limón, seen in this image, danced the part of “The Demon who may not be a Demon but is a Demon” and Lucas Hoving danced the counterpart role of the “Archangel who may not be an Archangel but is an Archangel.” Lines were further blurred by having Betty Jones, Ruth Currier, Lola Huth, Harlan McCallum and Louis Falco undertake parts as both “Votaries of Lucifer” and “Angels who may not be Angels but who are Angels.” At its crux, Limón’s point is that human beings are complex entities who are eternally locked in the tension of striving to be good and falling short. Despite the atrocities Limón had witnessed in his life it is clear that he held the belief that no human was beyond redemption. As Jennie Schulman noted in a review of The Demon for Back Stage on April 5, 1963, “when in the end the denizen of the underground is defeated it almost appeared that he sought defeat.” While Limón was labelled as many things throughout his career - Mexican, immigrant etc. - in his final works Limón transcended those definitions not by distancing himself from them, but by embracing the totality of his identity. In that acceptance of liminality he created common ground for all of us.

As a mature choreographer in post-war America, Limón continually revisits the theme of hope and grapples with how to provide it in the midst of suffering and despair. While he was not a religious man (in his memoir he refers to himself as a “renegade Catholic”), throughout the 1950s and 1960s Catholicism was frequently employed to reconcile these issues. Miguel Covarrubias had reconnected Limón to the symbolic and spiritual power of the church in his visits to Mexico and perhaps for the first time in his life, Limón had recognized how deeply embedded Catholic ritual and iconography was within his cultural identity as a Mexican. In later works Catholicism often provided narrative and architectural structure to his pieces and was the prism through which Limón viewed and connected to the realities of other cultures. This was particularly prominent in Missa Brevis (1958) and Psalm (1967) both works built on Jewish experience. This image (Left), a rehearsal of Missa Brevis in the National Cathedral, depicts the dancers with their arms extended like crosses in a gesture that evokes both suffering and the hope of redemption.

This intimate moment from Missa Brevis features Limón with two of his longstanding and most trusted dancers, Ann Vachon and Betty Jones. Although the movement requires Limón to physically support the women, one on each side, the power of the image lies in the sense of emotional support that their closeness is providing him. In a work that is often remembered for its large ensemble of dancers, this spare photograph points to why audiences are still moved by the piece.



Lone dancer stands mid frame, arms angled downwards with neck back, and head facing upwards.

José Limón in "The Demon," Unknown photographer, ca. 1963.

*MGZEB 80-3247, José Limón Choreography: Photographs Vol. 4, Courtesy of NYPL's Digital Collections, Image ID 58285592.

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