Dance troupe spotlights Mexico's native son, Limon

For the well-heeled crowd of a couple hundred of Mexico's cultural elite, the evening began with an easy question.

"How many of you know Martha Graham?" At the mention of the undisputed queen of modern dance, all hands shot up.

"How many of you know Jose Limon?" Audience members looked around sheepishly as just a few raised their hands.

Revered by dance aficionados the world over as one of the iconic figures of modern dance, Limon is largely unknown in his native Mexico.

Decades after his death, members of the Limon Dance Company are determined to right what they consider this historic wrong. They were in Mexico City to perform his choreographies and recruit 12 Mexican dancers.

"I must say I was a bit shocked to hear how little recognition Limon gets in his own country," said Gabriela Poler-Buzali, the Jose Limon Dance Foundation's executive director.

"Since I started in this job, I've made it my mission to spread the Limon gospel in Mexico," she told the audience at the troupe's performance Tuesday in the Mexican capital.

Held in a sprawling museum, the show included solos by two of the company's principal dancers, who flung themselves across the diminutive stage with Limon's trademark controlled abandon.

Limon himself was born in Culiacan, in the northwestern state of Sinaloa, in 1908, two years before Mexico's bloody and chaotic 1910-1917 Revolution. When he was 7 years old, Limon's family fled to the United States.

Although he spent most of his life in the United States, his early years in the midst of the Mexican Revolution deeply marked him. War and conflict are dominant themes in many of his works, including "Missa Brevis."

As a young man, he moved to New York to study painting but fell in love with dance, founding his own company after serving in World War II. He pioneered a dramatic, narrative-driven choreography style and was among the first to push male dancers to center stage. Along with Graham, he's widely considered among the key figures of 20th-century dance.

The soloists at the Mexico City performance — a Canadian woman and a half-French, half-Tunisian man — are typical of the far-flung makeup of the 13-member troupe, whose dancers also hail from the U.S., Colombia and Puerto Rico.

Currently, there's only one Mexican in the company.

Several Mexican dancers hoping for one of the 12 spots — eight dancers and four understudies — took in Tuesday's performance with wide eyes, their spandex dancewear contrasting with the polished eveningwear of the rest of the audience.

The next morning, three dozen dancers from throughout the country shook out their nerves as they warmed up for the audition. Their bare feet pounded on the wooden floorboards as they followed the company's Franco-Tunisian principal, Raphael Boumaila, as he leapt, crouched and pounced across the mirrored studio.

Artistic director Carla Maxwell looked on from a corner, sizing up the candidates. Maxwell, who danced under Limon himself before his death in 1972 and has led the company since 1978, said, "It's as much about the spirit as it is about the physicality."

"We're looking for dancers who not only have what it takes to handle Limon's very physically demanding choreography, but also people who have the right personality to be able to integrate into our group," she said, adding that unlike some other troupes that spotlight soloists, Limon emphasizes the corps.

"We need people who can join the community of the troupe, even if they can't communicate verbally right away," Maxwell said.

That was good news for Marina Acevedo, a dancer from the southern state of Oaxaca, who wore the No. 15 pinned to her leotard at Wednesday's audition.

"I don't speak English," Acevedo said. "But I'm very attuned to nonverbal language and I feel like I really understand what Limon was trying to communicate through his work."

At age 45, being chosen for the Limon Dance Company would be "a dream," she said.

Those picked will join the company from March through June, learning "Missa Brevis" and performing it in Mexico and New York. The recruits won't receive a salary, but the troupe will pay all their expenses.

For Israel Chavira, the audition itself was a thrill.

"When you're a kid, growing up in Mexico, you think of modern dance as something very alien, that only people in faraway countries do," said Chavira, the effort of the audition soaking through his white T-shirt. "But when you learn that Jose Limon, this genius of dance, is from here, it makes anything seem possible."