In one fell swoop, the one-week season of the Jose Limon Dance Company raises the question, wherefore modern dance? The current repertory, at the New York City Center until Feb. 3, is a virtual Who's Who of traditional modern dance. By including works by Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, the opening-night program presented half of the famous "big four" of the 1930s. Limon himself was a direct descendant of that quartet, having danced with the Humphrey-Weidman company and, later on, placing his own troupe under Humphrey's eye.
For many reasons, it has been the fate of American dance to disappear with its creators. Even much of Martha Graham's work is lost - and she and her company are still active. Since Limon passed on in 1972, his company has taken it upon itself to reverse a historical trend. It has struggled to remain a cohesive performing unit and has persuaded others to revive what is often labeled classical modern dance.
With this ambitious, Compassionate, and necessary concept in mind, what is one to make of a program that can only be called a disaster? A big truism of modern dance is that the younger generation cannot equal the power -- call it star quality -- of the original creators. Oh, how the present Limon company confirms this adage: Humphrey's "Air for the G String," for example, is a serene , simple, deliberately pretty visualization of a Bach air. IT aims to get at the power and glory of Bach by underplaying those qualities. Less is more, Humphrey is saying. But when the dancers tippy-toe through Humphrey's gentle walks, with their necks and backs carried in hushed anguish, they destroy whatever small dignity the dance has.
In Limon's case, the distinction between bad dancing and bad choreography is harder to sort out. In his massive "A Choreographic Offering," also to Bach, the dancers' stilted, heavy movements are surely a caricature of Limon's intentions. Yet it's hard to keep at bay the notion that his style is in fact a caricature of monumental architecture, arbitrary and full of lard.
Is it possible that the great Limon is really a one-dance choreographer (that one being "The Moor's Pavane")? IS it worth reviving Humphrey with bad interpreters? These are just some of the big questions the Limon company raises.
A third big one concerns the issue of datedness. Weidman is a hallowed figure. What happens if we find out he's old hat? His "Flickers," which received its Limon company premiere under the direction of Beatrice Seckler, is supposed to be a takeoff on silent movies. Weidman's pantomimic gifts and nose for comedy were legendary. It was always he who provided the happy change of pace in the days when dance was terribly serious and artistic. And don't think that the weidman touch isn't as sorely needed now as it saw 40 years ago. Alas, "Flickers" is as heavyhanded and predictable and childish as most Limon dances.
"Flickers" cannot bear the light of day, and it's as simple as that. The other issues are not so easy to resolve, but it would be a gross injustice to American dance if the Limom group remained its chief spokesmam.