“Limón work looks really easy,” says Risa Steinberg, after a technique demonstration at Juilliard. “But it’s stunning to people when they try it. They’ll say, ‘Oh, you just swing and drop your head.’ But those things are very scary.” Developed by Mexican choreographer José Limón, the classical modern technique is based on movement principles conceived by his teachers Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman: fall and rebound, suspension, and the use of momentum, gravity and breath.
Limón died in 1972, and his choreography is foremost sustained by the Limón Dance Company and former company members like Steinberg, who travel worldwide to restage his work. But even if a student doesn’t aspire to join the Limón Company, Steinberg says studying this technique gives dancers a strong basis for today’s contemporary work. It challenges their use of weight, support, strength and musicality in an anatomically healthy approach.
In many cases, it’s a college program that introduces a young dancer to pure Limón technique, and the transition isn’t always easy. But helping younger students attempt new dance styles is not about getting them to drop their old tendencies, Steinberg says. “They just add to what they already know. They have to understand why and how something else might enhance their work.” For her students, dropping their heads and rounding their spines are the hardest Limón elements to master, she says. “They’re relatively new concepts that take a while for them to trust.” But she primarily wants students to develop an intelligent and anatomical understanding of moving. “It’s never what you do, but how you do it. Even if you have to do something extreme, you’re conscious of it, and you can reformat your body to go back to a neutral place. Understanding neutral is really important.”
Steinberg describes her class as having a classical structure: first warming up the spine, legs and feet, and then moving across the floor. “I spend a lot of time getting the body in order, then add the torso very judiciously. Eventually, it will all come together.” Her classes begin with sequential movements, mostly initiated by the head—the heaviest part of the body. As students move with more momentum, these initial movements set up the body to move on track.
Here, Steinberg and Juilliard graduate Chuck Jones demonstrate successive curves of the spine to the front, side and high arch: movements that both warm up the spine and serve as foundations for Limón’s choreography.
Steinberg teaches successive curving of the spine in all directions at the beginning of class in a moderately slow tempo. As students progress through class, momentum is added to these movements, but their integrity should not change. These torso curves serve as the basis for much of Limón’s choreography and are fundamental elements of classical modern dance.
A New York native, Risa Steinberg graduated from The Juilliard School in 1971 and soon after began her 11-year tenure with the José Limón Dance Company. She has also performed with Anna Sokolow’s Players’ Project and the American Repertory Dance Company in Los Angeles. She joined Juilliard’s faculty in 2000, and since 2009 has served as the associate director of the dance division. Additionally, Steinberg is on the faculty of the Limón Dance Company and School, and teaches at the Peridance Capezio Center in NYC and the ImPulsTanz Vienna International Dance Festival in Austria.
Chuck Jones is a 2011 graduate of The Juilliard School and a member of Nederlands Dans Theater II.