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New Vintage

Isadora Duncan. Doris Humphrey. Pauline Lawrence. These are the spirits invoked by artistic director Dante Puleio for “Women’s Stories.” In its recent run at New York Live Arts, Limón Dance Company honored the women of its founder’s life and artistic heritage with an all-female cast performing vintage works as well as a new version of its most famous. The male lead in “Orfeo” was danced by a woman, and in a beautiful reimagining of “The Moor’s Pavane,” the male roles were removed entirely.


Limón Dance Company: “Women’s Stories”


New York Live Arts, NY, December 8, 2023


Karen Hildebrand

Lauren Twomley (front), back from left: Natalie Clevenger, Mariah Gravelin,
Deepa Liegel, Jessica Sgambelluri in José Limón's “Orfeo.” Photograph by Christopher Jones

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“Harpies,” a four-minute excerpt from “The Winged” (1966), kicked things off with five feral bird/women creatures that delightfully swarmed the stage, taking bites from their own calves while crouched in a wide-legged squat. While “Harpies” went by in a flash, “Dances for Isadora” (1971) allowed more time to fully meet the five women (Frances Lorraine Samson, Mariah Gravelin, Deepa Liegel, Jessica Sgambelluri, and Savanah Spratt) who in solo turns performed elements of Isadora’s personality and life. Scarves figured prominently in costumes by Charles D. Tomlinson, as they had in Duncan’s work. Spratt stood out in the final section, dressed in translucent black with an enormous purple flounce at her shoulders. She stamped her feet with flamenco passion, dragged one leg in an unbalanced lurch and spun as if she was tipsy. Her solo ended with a rather too literal depiction of Duncan’s famous death, strangled by her scarf.

“Orfeo” (1972),  one of Limón’s last dances, brought the best example of the choreographer’s angular movement vocabulary. Lauren Twombly performed Orfeo as more stag than human, holding a lyre overhead as if to protect—or maybe announce his approach. Three deer-like guardians brought Eurydice (Mariah Gravelin) to him, enshrouded cocoon-like by her bridal veil, while fog poured in from the wings. (Yes, the bare black box space of NYLA was transformed with wings and a rather clunky velvet curtain to resemble a proscenium stage.) As required in the myth, the two studiously avoided looking at each other as they performed an aching pas de deux. Of course, we know how this ends—ultimately Orfeo could not resist looking. The guardians returned and Eurydice was pulled back into her amazing veil to spend eternity in the underworld.

Mariah Gravelin (front), back from left: Natalie Clevenger, Deepa Liegel, Jessica Sgambelluri in José Limón's “Orfeo.” Photograph by Christopher Jones

For the finale, “Women’s Stories” jettisoned its history lesson and dived into a sleek reimagining of Limón’s “The Moors Pavane” by Israeli visual artist Hilla Ben Ari, with an electronic score by Rea Mochiach. By removing the male characters from Limón’s original work based on the story of Othello, Ben Ari allows the relationship of Emilia and Desdemona to take centerstage in “I Must Be Circumstanced.” Yet she restored the quartet formation with an additional pair of dancers who appeared on video screens. Desdemona (Jessica Sgambelluri ) and Emilia (Frances Lorraine Samson) danced live, while Mariah Gravelin and Savanah Spratt appeared human-sized on two video screens that were positioned onstage. It was as if Desdemona and Emilia were each looking into a mirror, but not at their physical doubles. Were they alter egos? Versions of their inner selves? The video dancers’ costumes were paler shades to support the notion of them as aspects of the primary characters. 

Not only did Ben Ari free the women from their male partners, she also freed them from the voluminous skirts and billowy sleeves of the original courtly costumes. Hilla Shapira designed simple jumpsuits that revealed the dancers’ limbs as they made sculptural shapes. There were moments when all four froze in various balances as if in a painting—Sgambelluri, in one instance, was bent forward on one leg with her elbows poking up like folded wings.

Jessica Sgambelluri, Savannah Spratt, Frances Lorraine Samson, Mariah
Gravelin in “I Must Be Circumstanced.” Photograph by Christopher Jones

Though Puleio has said the new work stands on its own, it certainly helped to know the story of Othello, if only to appreciate what Ben Ari did with the handkerchief that sets up Desdemona for tragedy. Emilia, at the revelatory moment, tossed not one but five white handkerchiefs. She just kept pulling them out of her costume, like doves from a magician’s hat. It was an act of complicity unhinged. At the end, the two video dancers stood together within the same screen to witness the corpse of Desdemona, while Emilia, in her anguish, leaned into a deep backbend.

Puleio dedicated these performances to Jennifer Muller, who died earlier this year. Muller had danced with Limón before founding her own company, and Limón set the solo “Sphinx” on her. 


Karen Hildebrand

Karen Hildebrand is former editorial director for Dance Magazine and served as editor in chief for Dance Teacher for a decade. An advocate for dance education, she was honored with the Dance Teacher Award in 2020. She follows in the tradition of dance writers who are also poets (Edwin Denby, Jack Anderson), with poetry published in many literary journals and in her book, Crossing Pleasure Avenue (Indolent Books). She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Originally from Colorado, she lives in Brooklyn.



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