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Women's Stories

The Limón Dance Company’s announcement of its upcoming program “Women's Stories” at New York Live Arts December 7-9 begged a conversation with the company’s artistic director Dante Puleio to learn what we could expect from the program. We followed up with a separate interview with guest artist Hilla Ben Ari, who is creating the centerpiece of the program “I Must Be Circumstanced,” a reimagining of Limón’s “The Moor’s Pavane” from a woman’s perspective. These conversations have been edited and condensed. 

Mariah Gravelin and Lauren Twomley in “Orfeo.” Photograph by Kelly Puleio

Fjord Review: What was the genesis of “Women's Stories”?

Dante Puleio: As you know, I’m relatively new to this position, and I am dedicated to leading this company in an authentic way—honoring José and honoring the 21st century and the artists and audiences that we have today. I felt I needed to dive into who José was and why he made the works he made. So the first couple of seasons I drew on works that came out of his cultural heritage. 

Now, I am moving into the next phase to address who was there while José was building his legacy. Who were the important people? For me, they were Isadora Duncan—who he called his “dance mother,” Doris Humphrey—for all the obvious reasons [Humphrey was his mentor and served as the artistic director of the Limón Dance Company from 1946 until her death in 1958], and his wife Pauline Lawrence. I wanted to celebrate these women who helped shape the field of modern dance and helped shape his legacy. In looking at the Limón repertory, José made “Dances for Isadora,” he made “A Choreographic Offering” in homage to Humphrey, and then he made “Orfeo” in tribute to his late wife. These are the works he made for the women in his life that inspired him. 

“Women's Stories” is a purposefully guided evening of the female perspective of the Limón story. We have “Dances for Isadora”—the five beautiful solos. You will get to see them up close at Live Arts—with the big scarf. “Orfeo” is also on the program. But we’re doing this dance between Orfeo and his beloved Eurydice, who returns from the dead along with her “guardians” for a final communion, with an all-female cast. I want to look at who tells these stories. Who are my audience members now? Who are my artists now? I want my audiences to see themselves onstage. That means that it’s not always going to be a man and a woman telling a story of love and loss. 

Also on the program is an excerpt from “The Winged” called “Feast of Harpies.”  We are presenting this all-women’s section, which has never been seen up close; it has always been performed on a proscenium. Now you will see these five women tearing rapaciously very close to you and you’ll get to experience the heat and drama in a much more intimate way.

As I consider how to keep this company not only honoring José, but also current and contemporary in the field, I ask, “Who are the women that are shaping the field in this moment?” I am looking to involve acclaimed as well as early career choreographers. And in the international arena, I thought of Hilla Ben-Ari, who is a visual artist from Israel.

Hilla and I had worked together at the University of Florida a couple of years ago. So when I first got this job, I called her because I had just seen an exhibition of hers that was so stunning. It just stayed with me. So I reached out to her saying, “I find your work interesting. I’d be curious to hear how you respond to the Limón repertory.”

She took some time, then called me back and said, “’The Moor’s Pavane’ is quite interesting to me, especially from the female perspective.” I said, “Wouldn’t you know, that’s something I’m looking to dive into.” It distilled into this idea of her taking “The Moor’s Pavane” and completely deconstructing it, using multi-media screens, as she does, and integrating it with live performance—but erasing the male characters. So you get a sense of “The Moor’s Pavane” and the story of Othello—but of the women’s role in it. You also get different sides of the two female characters, Emilia and Desdemona, and all that they go through. She pulls it apart in a fascinating process. It seemed like such a natural evolution of storytelling from my perspective and my mission as director of this company. It all seemed to overlap beautifully and led to this concert. 

From left: Savannah Spratt, Mariah Gravelin, Lauren Twomley (center), Deepa Liegel, Frances Lorraine Samson in “The Winged.” Photograph by Kelly Puleio

Can you tell me about the process of working with Ben Ari and the dancers and how that is pulling together?

I think we were all a little nervous. How do we work with a visual artist who is not a choreographer? What does that look like? Everyone went in knowing that we were trying to create something new and beautiful. How do we deconstruct this dance, how do we reimagine it, and how does it get put onto a contemporary landscape? 

We are changing the costumes. So you are no longer going to see these traditional, 14th century, Italian, velvet dresses. No, it’s a person of today who is experiencing this story, so the costumes are brand new. We originally started with the idea of using the original costumes and music. As we observed Hilla’s process of pulling the “Pavane” apart, we noticed that the drama changed. Her narrative, her storytelling is not like José’s. She would say, “Let’s have you walk on this way and let’s see what happens if you take that phrase and pause there and hold that while the other person does another part of the phrase.” It starts to deconstruct the Limón vocabulary until it takes a new shape and tells its own story. Just by taking the men out of the choreography and doing some of the gestures, postures, and vocabulary, we could feel a tension. The costumes weren’t right. 

We said, “Well they can’t be in these 14th century Renaissance dresses. It doesn’t make sense anymore.” So how do we take the shape and intention of the costumes? How do you pull apart the purity of the white [Desdemona’s dress color] and the mischievousness of the orange [Emilia’s dress color]? We still had four characters—two on the screen and two dancing live, but they needed to be in different costumes. So what color works in opposition with the color white to tell a different color story and the same with the orange? In this way, it evolved. We had the costume designer come in and she tried some options. After considering many that didn’t feel quite right, we landed on a look that feels right for the story.

As Hilla continued deconstructing the choreography, I realized we were going to need a different score as well. So we started talking to a couple musicians and pulling apart the Purcell music, adding a different soundscape underneath, and using it so that it flows in and out. We landed on music that felt appropriate to tell the story. 

So Ben Ari is choreographing?

Yes, I would say, “She is visually directing their dancing and giving them new ideas and material to play with.” It’s not the traditional way of working. She’s not up there teaching a phrase and saying, “Hey, do this phrase.” She would say, “Show me what the vocabulary is. Okay, can you pause there, can you run out of that, and can you go into this other moment?”

What role does the video play?

You’ll have two screens onstage. Each screen will house either the video recording of Desdemona or Emilia. Then you have the live Desdemona and Emilia in front of the screens. And there is interplay between the two; it is a quartet. You will see the quartet. The two live dancers will be performing in front of these projection screens that are placed on a bit of a diagonal and upstage of them. And they have been choreographed altogether.

And then, of course, there’s the hankie! [The handkerchief is considered a 5th character in the original choreography.]

Savannah Spratt and Mariah Gravelin in “The Moor's Pavane.” Photograph by Allison Armfield

So how much time did Ben Ari spend with the dancers?

In general, I like for my commissioned artists to have several residencies with the company. After all, the “Pavane” wasn’t built in a two-week process. Today’s demands of bringing in a high-functioning choreographer and expecting them to create a masterwork in a two-week period are unrealistic. I like to create a scenario where these artists have a creative process that allows them to come in and play with ideas, build without delivering a product, and give those ideas some time while getting to know the dancers and the dancers get to know them. We wait a couple of months and bring them in for a two-week residency where they can start to put some form around their idea. Then they come back again a couple of months later and that’s when they finish―they create the product that we are going to see onstage. So the dream scenario is to have a year with 6 to 8 weeks of in-person interaction over the course of that year. Hilla had something similar. She’ll be returning soon to complete the final version for Live Arts.

I imagine from reading about some of her previous works that she does most of her work on the computer in her home studio.

Correct. She does a lot of this on the computer, but she did the live capture in our studio. Then she takes that content and manipulates it into the project that she’s working on. In the final piece of this process, she will combine what she has done in her studio with what she has done in our studio so that it all lives together.

Do the live dancers relate to the video as they dance?

They were choreographed to relate to them. For instance, in the original choreography, the four cast members bow to each other and move through space together. Now they will be doing it in relationship to a screen instead of a live person. The screens are life size, so it will probably be just the same in terms of proximity and size of the dancer.

So in essence, they are bowing, gesturing, and dancing with themselves? 

A part of themselves, yes. For me, that’s what it feels like. We are multi-faceted human beings. Whatever work we see, whether it’s “The Moor’s Pavane” or “Appalachian Spring,” we know these characters as they have been portrayed, and that can become one-dimensional. But now, we are taking that character and seeing different sides of what they are going through. Maybe this is what’s going on in their mind, while that is what they are presenting outwardly in their body. So now you get to see a deeper view of what this character is experiencing. That’s how I feel Hilla has interpreted it and brought it to life. 

It sounds fascinating.

I am excited to do new stuff. I want to speak to a new generation. I want the Limón legacy and story to reach people. He was talking about the human condition and experience, and we are a different set of humans today. I have to think about what that means and make sure that I am fulfilling that mission.

Mariah Gravelin in “Orfeo.” Photograph by Kelly Puleio

Conversation with Hilla Ben Ari

You are known as a visual or multi-disciplinary artist. What led you to start working with dancers?

Hilla Ben Ari: It began with the idea of a sculpture. Then I became interested in movement that is arrested and the duality between movement and stillness. I created my first video more than 15 years ago. It was a single channel with one protagonist, who was standing on one leg trying to balance herself on a beam in an endless loop. This video was my initial venture into choreography—an exploration of a concept I have developed through the years. I guess you could call it “a choreography of stillness,” where the body holds a difficult posture for a long time in an endless loop. This evolved into more complex choreography with several video screens and more than one dancer in multi-channel figure installations, where I create a choreography in the space. I call it “spatial choreography.” It occurs in space, and not through time. It doesn’t have a beginning and an end, but it happens endlessly. The spectators visiting the installation actually join the composition—they join the choreography that is happening in the space. The dancers in the video are life-size, so the spectator has the feeling of encountering a real dancer, even though it is just a projection.

Of all the Limón repertory, what drew you to “The Moor’s Pavane”?

I immediately felt connected when I watched it online. I thought the piece had an interesting gender relationship. In my work, I explore things that relate to gender, to the female body, and to the embodied experience of women in our world. And it is such a strong piece. You have the quartet that Limón created with Othello, Iago, Desdemona, and Emilia and you also have the relationship between the two couples. Then, I focused on the female characters, Emilia and Desdemona. I noticed what I call “a mute movement.” I define this is as a movement that is supported by or reflects the action of the male dancers. It’s a mute gesture―one that just follows the male’s lead. I was interested in exploring what happens when I listen only to the female voices and focus on their gestures. Their movements are usually supported by the male figures. So what happens when there are no male figures in the story? I wanted to find a different perspective on this story. The idea developed from there. 

And there is something particularly interesting that Limón created between these two couples. They mirror each other through the whole piece. It’s quite thought provoking. So I worked with this idea of the mirroring between the couples. I created a quartet as well, but one composed of two live dancers onstage and two dancers that are video projections. You could call it “hybrid choreography” because the real dancers and the life-size figure projections dance together in a composition of four dancers. 

I was interested in exploring what happens when I listen only to the female voices and focus on their gestures.

So did your narrative create your process, or did your process create a new narrative?

That’s an interesting question. I think it’s maybe both. I merged my language of static positions, or stillness, with Limón’s original choreography and that created something else that challenged the narrative of Shakespeare’s plot. The tension of holding a static posture for a long duration offered an embodied experience of how we control the female body to fit a certain social order and notions of how women should act. Limón was working with a Shakespearean play using a dance form from the Renaissance. The movements are very controlled. 

Of course, the play and the Limón interpretation with its themes of jealousy and betrayal ended with murder. For me, it wasn’t about that at all. For me, it’s about what happens to these women who experience violence that increases through the plotline. We see their fragility and vulnerability on one hand, but what about their ability and power to resist? 

So I watched the Limón choreography, and it follows Shakespeare’s Othello plot exactly, but he picked only four of the characters to convey the story. For me it was interesting to choose the characters for my interpretation. It will be a bit of a change. It starts with Desdemona’s devotion to Othello and eventually moves to Emilia overcoming her silence, speaking up to tell the truth, and refusing to be controlled anymore. It ends with the “Willow Song,” a real song from the play that Desdemona sings just before she is murdered. It speaks of women who experience violence from their partner. It could be interpreted as an attempt to find bonding or create mutual support.

In the past, has your creative process been driven by storytelling or visual design?

In my work I explore how to challenge cultural narratives. Many times, I work with stories that already exist and that I would like to rethink. I think that the body is important here. It’s important to retell these stories through the experience of the body and to let it speak somehow. What is it like to be a woman? How does her body function in this kind of system?

In my previous works, I generated a dialogue with artists that were active in various mediums. For instance, in one of my projects, I created a dialogue with a play written in the 1950s, in which I brought out a marginalized female character and placed her front and center. So I am into storytelling, but it’s not just about building a story. It’s about deconstructing a narrative and leaving some open questions.

Are you working on any other dance projects? What is coming up next?

Yes, I have another project that also involves four dancers. But it’s a totally different exploration. It deals with the female body, but it doesn’t rely on a dialogue with another artist as I have in previous works. And I have written a play that, when realized, will include dancers. But right now I am completely immersed in this project with the Limón Company and I’m super excited about it!

Karen Greenspan

Karen Greenspan is a New York City-based dance journalist and frequent contributor to Natural History Magazine, Dance Tabs, Ballet Review, and Tricycle among other publications. She is also the author of Footfalls from the Land of Happiness: A Journey into the Dances of Bhutan, published in 2019.


Judith L. Hanna

fascinating interviews — show should come to DC!


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