When American modern dance pioneer José Limón immigrated to the United States from Mexico as a 7-year-old boy in 1915, children made fun of him and his siblings because they couldn’t speak English. Instead of hanging his head in shame, Limón did something about it.
“He vowed to speak better than any of them, and I can attest that … he spoke beautifully’’ said Carla Maxwell, artistic director for the world-renowned Limón Dance Company, which carries on the late choreographer’s legacy to this day.
Limón went on to become one of the most famous choreographers in the world. He formed the Limón Dance Company in 1946, after becoming an American citizen.
Maxwell, speaking by phone from the company’s rehearsal location in Harlem, said the late Limón was a wonderful speaker and writer who was self-taught in many things. He also had the courage to overcome challenges through discipline and hard work.
“I think part of his life was always reconciling his Mexican roots with this American potpourri,’’ she said.
Northeast Ohio audiences will get a rare chance to see the Limón Dance Company perform for free in a single concert Friday at Kent State University’s E. Turner Stump Theatre. The concert, which required reservations, has sold out, which communications and marketing director Effie Tsengas said is testimony to the iconic company’s strong following.
Today, the Limón Dance Company remains devoted to maintaining both Limón’s technique and repertory. Maxwell has spent most of her career either dancing for Limón or working to further his legacy. She worked with him the last seven years of his life, touring with his company while she was still a Juilliard student.
Limón also was part of a dream team faculty that built the dance program at Juilliard under Martha Hill. Other teachers included the faculty of Martha Graham — another master of American modern dance — and luminary Antony Tudor as head of the ballet faculty. Limón taught all day at Juilliard and then rehearsed all night with his company.
“People took a year to create new work, and it shows,’’ Maxwell said.
She began working with the Limón Dance Company in 1965 while a dance student at Juilliard, and became artistic director in 1978, six years after Limón’s death.
Limón didn’t start dancing until he was 20, after he realized he would never be a great painter, which had been his first love. His life was changed when he saw German expressionist dancer/choreographer Harald Kreutzberg in 1929 and realized a man could dance with power and passion.
“It gave him the courage to do something’’ with dance, Maxwell said of Limón, who studied with Americans Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman in New York.
The young man from Mexico was a master of form, a musician and a painter, all of which can be seen in his work, said Maxwell.
“Limón was an anomaly in his own time,’’ she said.
Musicality was of utmost importance in his dances: ‘‘He used to tell us, ‘If you’re out in a field without a stage, scenery, set or costumes, or even music, people should understand what you’re dancing about and they should feel the music coming out of your body,’’ Maxwell said.
The dancemaker believed so passionately that all great composers are great choreographers and vice versa, he gave a convocation speech at Juilliard in 1966 called ‘‘Dancers Are Musicians Are Dancers.’’
He also believed that dance must be passionate theater, even when there’s no story line. Limón was known for purposefully setting limitations on his choreography, including not using props, to force himself to be more creative.
Friday’s program in Kent will include two Limón pieces — the ensemble dance Psalm, restaged by Maxwell with a newly commissioned score by Jon Magnussen, and Chaconne, which was Limón’s first major solo piece, set to the music of Bach.
The 13-member company also will perform Come With Me, its newest commission by Rodrigo Pederneiras of Brazil, with music by jazz musician Paquito D’Rivera. Finally, the solo piece Etude is a companion piece to Psalm choreographed by Maxwell and inspired by Limón’s technique. It is set to music by Schubert.
The holiday theater season is now in full swing, so here’s a sampling of festive shows coming up in the next couple weeks.
• Theatre 8:15 will present A Christmas Portrait at 8:15 p.m. Friday and Saturday, featuring timeless songs performed by Kerry Bush, Chuck Garrard, Miranda Garrard, Kristopher Oprisch and Mark Adkins. Cost is $15 or $10 for senior citizens and students. The theater is located at 4740 Massillon Road, Green. Call 330-896-0339 for reservations.
• Largely Literary Theater Company is celebrating with the Hudson Players with The Christmas Pudding: A Largely Literary Christmas, featuring poems and stories by Mark Twain, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Hans Christian Andersen and others. The cast includes Mark Dawidziak, Sarah Showman, Alex Nine, Emma Picht and Tom Stephan.
The show will run at 8 p.m. Dec. 13 and 14 at Barlow Community Center, 41 S. Oviatt St,, Hudson. Cost is $14. Call 330-655-8522.
• Magical Theatre Company will open the holiday classic Miracle on 34th Street Friday, running through Dec. 21 at 565 W. Tuscarawas Ave., Barberton. This story of dreams coming true for those who open their hearts stars Bob Parenti of Uniontown as Kris Kringle and Leah Greczanik of Norton as little girl Susan. The adult cast includes Adam Hoffman of Stow; Dennis O’Connell of Canton; Laura Rauh, Mark Seven and Jo Jarosz of Akron; Deb Lemire and Eric Lualdi of Cuyahoga Falls; Geoffrey Darling of Twinsburg; Michael Rogan of Highland Heights; and David Drumm of Wooster. The rest of the child cast includes Brook Stiles and Allayna Rose of Norton; Reagan Zajac, Noah, Owen and Molly Casino, and Nathan Jarosz of Akron; and Freddie and CeCe Brown of Cuyahoga Falls.
Cost is $11-$13. Call 330-848-3708 or see www.magicaltheatre.org.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or email@example.com.