New Year's Eve arrived early this year. Taking a break from its normal repertory season (running through Dec. 19) at the Joyce Theater, the Jose Limon Dance Company staged a tribute to its founder. But it was really a memory walk, a reunion of the Limon clan, and a testament of faith to the grand old style of modern dance that Limon personally embodied before he passed on in December 1972 .
There were old film clips, and recorded messages from former colleagues of Limon. They all spoke to the same point: of the greatness of the human spirit and of the artist's duty to realize that spirit in dance.
But the crowning touch to ''auld lang syne'' came when all the former Limon dancers in the audience were asked to come onto the stage and form a circle around the current company as they performed a circle dance from Limon's ''There Is a Time.'' The idea was continuity, the unbroken chain. The dance itself, inspired by Ecclesiastes, is a typical expression of Limon's religiosity, and of what one speaker described as his ''humanism.''
While the sentimentality of the evening would have been understandable to anyone who has been to a reunion, the sentiments expressed throughout the evening - in dance as well as words - are fightin' words to contemporary sensibilities. Quite simply, the unabashed grandeur of Limon's works - in fact, the very intent to deal with grand themes - is hard for many to swallow today. Furthermore, there is the real question of whether Limon had the artistic means to support his bold scenarios.
One of the selections on the program was a rare performance of an early Limon work, ''Chaconne.'' It's a solo made in 1942 to Bach, with a simplicity and muted austerity entirely missing from the later, more ambitious pieces. ''Chaconne'' might be Limon's best work, if only because its dance language doesn't have to be unduly stretched beyond its natural powers of expression. Instead of celebrating the greatness of mankind, the dancer celebrates only the beauty of her contours and those of Bach. When the dancer is as elegant as Sarah Stackhouse, the ''message'' comes across with a force all the more convincing for its gentleness.
The Limon company is the first to have survived the passing of its founder. Will it continue to survive? Strong artistic leadership and funding are obvious requirements. But the questions of Limon's pertinence to today and the validity of a large Limon repertory also need to be settled.
This season the Limon group performs a work by Anna Sokolow as well. Sokolow is an astringent choreographer; her ''Magritte, Magritte,'' based on the paintings of the Surrealist artist, has an added edge because of its subject matter. Cutting through the fatty tissues of Limon, ''Magritte, Magritte'' is a welcome addition to the repertory.