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Saturday, January 25, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Concert Preview

Ensemble brilliantly melds founder's heritage with new works

Special to The Seattle Times

Dance review


Limn Dance Company, Thursday night (program repeated last night and 8 p.m. tonight), Meany Theater, UW Campus; $32; 206-543-4880.

Thirty-one years after the death of its founder, José Limón, the Limón Dance Company remains a force in modern dance. While carefully preserving Limón's heritage and that of his colleague Doris Humphrey, artistic director Carla Maxwell has also been praised for keeping the company vital by commissioning new works by contemporary choreographers.

Of the five dances being performed at Meany this weekend, the most thrilling, however, is not one of the contemporary pieces, but a rediscovered masterpiece by Limón himself.

"Psalm," originally performed in 1967 and remounted by Maxwell last year, is a powerfully beautiful ensemble piece. Although abstract (telling no story), the simple rounded movements and complex rhythms convey tremendous emotion. "Psalm's" effect is of spiritual grandeur grounded in vulnerable humanism.

Limón's inspiration for the work was an ancient Jewish idea that all the sorrows of the world rest upon 36 just men, ordinary mortals who may be unaware of their station. A lone man, portrayed by Robert Regala on Thursday night with incisive energy tempered by softness, interacts with an ensemble of 13 dancers. At times he melds seamlessly with the group, merging into their circles of reaching arms. At other times he is singled out, either in tableaus of Pietà-like grief, or as a protective leader.

In its first performance in 1967, Limón tapped out the rhythms on the stage. For Maxwell's restaging, she commissioned a score by Jon Magnussen. A baritone voice, a group of chamber singers, strings, drums and bells weave a sacramental soundscape of chanted prayers and rhythms. It is beautiful and adds tremendously to the mood of the piece, although one can't help but imagine that as originally danced with nothing but percussive rhythms, "Psalm" had a different kind of power.

The program opened with the 1949 "Invention" by Humphrey. A man and three women, Raphael Boumaila, Kristen Foote and Roxane D'Orleans Juste, moved with slow full movements, which emphasized the weight of the body without becoming earthbound.

Two solos set to music by Franz Schubert were very different in feel. "Transfiguration," by contemporary German choreographer Susanne Linke, was floor-bound and constricted, muscles tightened to spasm and twitch. Maxwell's "Etude," to a Schubert song, built a spiraling series of expansive turns to a sense of flight.

Dancer Jonathon Riedel turned choreographer for "The Unsightful Nanny," inspired by Edward Gorey drawings. This parodic skitlike piece in which an umbrella is reinvented as a weapon, a candle and a wind bellows, gave the dancers a chance to explore a mood of comic exaggeration.

All of these pieces, whether major or minor, bore an evident relation to the company's heritage of classic modern dance, an expressive humanism. As evidenced here, Maxwell has managed the difficult task of maintaining a clear stylistic vision while keeping her company growing and changing.

Maxwell will present a free public video/slide presentation discussing the remounting of "Psalm," tonight from 6 to 7:30 p.m. in Kane Hall, room 220.

Mary Murfin Bayley: marybayley@aol.com

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