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José Limón - More Resources

José Limón (1908 - 1972)

By Norton Owen

A forceful and charismatic presence both onstage and in the studio, José Limón is remembered as a dynamic performer, a prolific choreographer, and an influential teacher, recognized as a key figure in American modern dance's third generation.  His classic dances range from chamber works such as his masterpiece, The Moor's Pavane, to large-scale ensembles including A Choreographic Offering and Missa Brevis.  His approach to movement, commonly known as Limón technique (though it was never codified), is still taught around the world, and his company continues his legacy decades after his death.  Furthermore, illustrious Limón students including Lar Lubovitch, Garth Fagan, and Jennifer Muller have multiplied his influence through their own Limón-flavored works.

Born in Mexico as the eldest of eleven children, Limón was exposed to the arts from an early age because of his father's work as a musician, and he aspired to make his own creative contribution as a visual artist, especially after the family moved to Los Angeles in 1918.  After a short time as a UCLA art student, he struck out on his own to continue studies in New York, and it was there as a 20-year-old struggling artist that he experienced a transformative epiphany.  A classmate took Limón to his first dance performance, featuring the German expressionists Harald Kreutzberg and Yvonne Georgi, and he was immediately compelled to abandon his art studies and follow a new vision.  "To dance as Michelangelo's visions dance and as the music of Bach dances" became his goal, though he later admitted that dance had "never occurred to me as something a man would be caught dead doing" ("An American Accent" 23).   His life's path was forever altered when he first walked through the door of the Humphrey-Weidman Studio to begin dance studies.  Not only would Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman become his mentors, but the office manager who signed him up for classes was Pauline Lawrence, a former Denishawn dancer who would later distinguish herself as his costume designer, manager, and wife.

Limón's natural athletic ability and passion for his new calling were palpable, and he was soon in great demand as a dancer—both as a member of the Humphrey-Weidman Company and on the Broadway stage.  He began creating his own short dances in 1931, and within two years earned his first Broadway choreographic credit, for the Jerome Kern musical Roberta.  Throughout the 1930s, he continued his decade-long apprenticeship with Humphrey-Weidman while spending summers at the Bennington School of the Dance, where he was able to further develop his choreographic abilities.  He even managed to continue making dances while serving in the armed forces during World War II, collaborating with composers such as Frank Loesser and Alex North, and choreographing everything from burlesque shows to Nativity pageants.

After returning from the war and formally establishing his own troupe in 1946, he took the unusual step of asking Humphrey to continue her mentorship as Artistic Director of the José Limón Dance Company, an unprecedented arrangement when prominent dancer/choreographers typically directed their own companies.  Under her experienced directorial eye, Limón created one of the 20th century's most acclaimed modern dances, The Moor's Pavane, distilling Shakespeare's Othello into its essential tale of jealousy and betrayal.  Utilizing a core group of dancers who were artists in their own right—including Lucas Hoving, Pauline Koner, Betty Jones and Ruth Currier—Limón went on to choreograph a succession of modern classics throughout the 1950s, including The Traitor, There is a Time, The Emperor Jones, and Missa Brevis.  In these intensely dramatic dances as well as in later works utilizing larger masses of dancers, Limón expressed emotion purely through the movement itself, believing that dance "must be intensely and completely human, or it will be gymnastics, and be mechanical and empty" ("On Dance").

The approach to movement that many today recognize as Limón Technique is based upon principles of fall and recovery that were largely developed by Doris Humphrey, with obvious reliance on breath and weight.  In general, it employs a much more free-flowing use of the body than the percussive movements characteristic of Martha Graham's technique.  Contrary to Graham's development of set classroom exercises, Limón viewed his own classes as a way to experiment with phrases that he would later use onstage, and he steadfastly resisted codification.  He wrote, "It is dangerous for an art, however 'classical,' to become so rigid, so fossilized, as to lose the freshness, resiliency, and vigor of its original impulse" ("An American Accent" 18).

Some key institutional partners enabled Limón to live and work throughout the 1950s with a remarkable degree of security (though never luxury) though he lacked any substantial government subsidy, foundation support, or significant individual patrons.  As a charter faculty member of the Juilliard School, he was offered free studio space and high-level production elements including live music for his New York seasons, all provided by the Dance Division's enormously supportive Martha Hill.  His summers were spent in residence at American Dance Festival, then located at Connecticut College, where he also had access to studios and regular commissions for new dances.  In 1954, the Limón Dance Company became the first performing group to tour abroad under the auspices of the U.S. State Department, providing many weeks of employment to his dancers and spreading his distinctive brand of dance theater throughout the world in multiple tours.

Another institutional partner emerged in 1964, when a new repertory company known as the American Dance Theater was established as a short-lived resident constituent of Lincoln Center's New York State Theater, dedicated to preserving the classics of the modern dance canon under Limón's direction.  Although the company would ultimately fail to continue past its second season because of inadequate funding, it was an enormously high-profile enterprise.  In addition to his own works, Limón also programmed dances by Valerie Bettis, Anna Sokolow, Doris Humphrey, and others. 

However, Limón's ascendance to this prominent and prestigious position came at a time when his artistic aesthetic faced dissenting voices both within the dance world and in the views of some critics.  His humanistic approach to dance had always had detractors, and in Limón's final decade many observers considered his work to be hopelessly old-fashioned.  Still, some continued to appreciate his enduring artistry even as times were changing.  Shortly before Limón's death in 1972 at the age of 64, critic Deborah Jowitt wrote in The New York Times that he seemed "like a king in exile from a foreign country.  But a king, nonetheless."

In the decades since his death, critics and audiences continue to rediscover the potency of Limón dances, which are performed throughout the world.  One key reason for Limón's wide visibility is the popularity of The Moor's Pavane as a crossover vehicle in the ballet world.  Limón personally supervised stagings of his masterpiece for companies such as American Ballet Theatre and the Royal Swedish Ballet.  And Rudolf Nureyev famously interpreted Limón's own role in Pavane for many years, keeping it in his repertory until the end of his performing career.  Meanwhile, the Limón Dance Company has earned a place in dance history as the first modern troupe to survive its founder, continuing to perform the Limón classics in addition to works by dozens of other choreographers.  The Limón Company has perpetuated and extended the legacy of José Limón through its vital presentations of both new and classic works, embodying Limón's own conviction that, "there is a great difference between a pantheon and a mausoleum" ("Dancers are Musicians are Dancers").


Norton Owen is Director of Preservation for Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, and a former Institute Director of the José Limón Dance Foundation.  He has served as curator for dozens of dance-related exhibitions and contributed essays to many publications, including José Limón: An Unfinished Memoir.  He is President of the O'Donnell-Green Music and Dance Foundation and a past chair of both the Dance Heritage Coalition and the Dance Panel of the New York State Council on the Arts.  Dance/USA has honored him with its Ernie Award for “unsung heroes who have led exemplary lives in dance,” and he was the recipient of the Dance Films Association's first Dance in Focus Award in 2012.

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Dunbar, June, ed.  José Limón.  New York: Routledge, 2002.

Jowitt, Deborah.  "Limón Pursues His Visions" New York Times 8 Oct., 1972.

Lewis, Daniel.  The Illustrated Dance Technique of José Limón.  New York: Harper & Row, 1984.

Limón, José.  "An American Accent." The Modern Dance: Seven Statements of Belief. Ed. Selma Jeanne Cohen. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1965.

---.  An Unfinished Memoir.  Ed. Lynn Garafola.  Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1999.

---.  "Dancers are Musicians are Dancers."  Juilliard Review Annual 1966/67: 4-10

---.  "On Dance." 7 Arts.  Ed. Fernando Puma.  Garden City, NY: Permabooks, 1953.

Pollack, Barbara and Charles Humphrey Woodford.  Dance is a Moment: A Portrait of José Limón in Words and Pictures.  Pennington, NJ: Princeton Book Company, 1993.

Moving Image

Limón: A Life Beyond Words. Prod. Ann Vachon, dir. Malachi Roth. New York: Antidote International Films, 2004.