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Can Limon Dance Company help heal the wounds of Hurricane Katrina?

Limon Dance Company kicks off its 70th season with a New Orleans performance on Saturday (May 9), but this show isn't just a chance to see a fabled, world-touring American troupe. The company expects to weave a handful of young New Orleans dancers and a local chorus into its history.

The centerpiece of the one-night show, presented by theNew Orleans Ballet Association, is a staging of "Missa Brevis" — a dance created by Jose Limon after touring through Poland in the 1950s. The dancer and choreographer saw the still-raw devastation of World War II and the passion for rebuilding among the people of Warsaw.

His artistic response was to choreograph "Missa Brevis," setting it to folk-drenched music by the Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly.

After half a century — and more than four decades after Limon's death — his company continues to stage "Missa Brevis," incorporating dancers from communities where the troupe tours, said artistic director Carla Maxwell.

"Limon's response to the destruction of Warsaw remains timely. It's a universal piece about a universal experience of devastation and rebuilding and we're glad to bring it to New Orleans," Maxwell said. "For the local artists who join us, it's often a life changing experience, but it's also very powerful for audiences. When we danced this piece in Cali, Columbia, for example, people were weeping and roaring in the crowd. It's a gut-wrenching cathartic experience for many."

For the New Orleans performance of "Missa Brevis," 16 Limon dancers will be augmented with student dancers from the NORDC/NOBA Center for Dance, a tuition free program of the New Orleans Ballet Association. The student dancers were selected by Maxwell following an extended residency by Limon artists that took place in the summer and fall of 2014.

"Missa Brevis" will be performed with live music — a rare extra for touring companies with tight budgets. A 40-member New Orleans chorus and an organist will perform with the Limon dancers under the direction of Carol Rausch, chorus master of the New Orleans Opera.

Maxwell emphasized that this performance won't be some rote restaging of Limon's 1958 dance.

"Live music always makes a huge difference for dancers. They can't just stay in their comfort zone. They need to respond in the moment — and that's both risky and inspiring," Maxwell said. "Staging the piece with a big chorus also means interesting choices. At this point we don't know if the chorus will appear on stage with the dancers. So expect a very fresh performance."

The company will present two other celebrated works by Limon: "Mazurkas" (1958), and "The Moor's Pavane" (1949). The program is a time traveler's delight: a visit to the early days of the Modern Dance movement in America. Limon, a Mexican exile, is often mentioned in the same breath with Martha Graham and other pioneers who rejected traditional ballet and forged a new, American style.

"I worked with Limon personally, so for me, to share these dances is about passing on a legacy — movement by movement, dancer by dancer, audience by audience," Maxwell said. "Limon created more than a new technique. He invented a philosophy of theater and encouraged each dancer to tell a story, to become a persona. Our dancers can't just be athletic — they need to be dramatic."

More than anything, Maxwell said, her Limon dancers need an audience.

"I'm not talking about selling tickets," she said. "As a company, we're not really selling anything. We're making an offering with each performance and the audience is an integral part of that. Our dances aren't esoteric. They are invitations. If you allow yourself to enter, the experience can be visceral. But we're only as successful as an audience allows us to be. Our goal is to start a dialog with each person in the theater – and isn't that the ultimate reason for having art anyway?"


WHAT: the celebrated modern dance company founded by Jose Limon launches its 70th Anniversary Season in New Orleans with three of Limon's most celebrated works, including "Mazurkas" (1958), "The Moor's Pavane" (1949) and "Missa Brevis" (1958).

WHEN: Saturday, May 9, 8 p.m.

WHERE: Mahalia Jackson Theater, 1419 Basin St.

ADMISSION: Tickets for Limon Dance Company start at $24 and may be purchased through the New Orleans Ballet Association Box Office at 504.522.0996 or online, and through Ticketmaster at 800.745.3000

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