Limón/Humphrey Key Elements & Terminology
- Gravity and “the arc between two deaths”: Jose Limon and his mentor Doris Humphrey believed that life was essentially the sum of “the arc between two deaths”, or the idea that the body started small, grew throughout life, and returned to that same place of smallness. Every movement in this technique is determined by the body’s relationship to gravity. Are you falling in to gravity and sinking? Or are you resisting gravity and rising? Any half toe work in this technique is the result of the body rising so high up into lightness that the heels have no choice but to lift up. Same goes for plie, the muscles don’t do the work, gravity does.
- – Rise
- – Fall
- Rebound: Often in the Humphrey / Limon technique the body will fall down in to gravity and rebound out of heaviness into lightness. Rather than controlling your fall, you simply “let go” of muscular engagement and let gravity do the work for you. (HINT: your core will always be engaged, even as you release engagement in your limbs).
- Suspension: Humphrey and Limon believed that the most stimulating movement occurs in the point of suspension after the body rebounds out of gravity. The arrival to a suspension will come from momentum (your fall and rebound) rather than “locking” or “holding” the position. Pendular movement (swinging of the arms or torso) is a great way to visualize the point of suspension.
- Breath and Humanity: The most important thing about Humphrey/Limon Is that every step and every gesture has a meaning. Movement comes from breath, as does life. The arms are always a reflection of the torso and all life and movement emanates from the pelvis. Arm positions are often referred to as “greeting” gestures and have a majestic quality to them, full of life and engagement throughout the entire body.
- Counterpoint: Limon was very interested in the ways music and movement could counter and support one another. It is common for phrases to be taught in one mode of counting (say 8’s) and the music to be in an entirely different time signature (6’s). It’s a fun brain teaser!
Introduction to Doris Humphrey
Doris Humphrey was a dancer and choreographer and is considered one of the mothers of American modern dance. Born in 1895 in Illinois, her early dance training was comprised of ballet and instruction from Mary Wood Hinman. She briefly ran her own dance studio for children, teaching social and classical forms of dance. At the urging of Hinman, she moved to California where she entered the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts in 1917. At Denishawn she trained, performed, toured, and created works under the direction of modern dance pioneers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn.
Did you know that one of her pieces of choreography from her time at Denishawn, Soaring, is a part of RDT’s repertory? What prop is used in it?
B) Trapeze harness
C) Large silk scarf
D) Bird wings
In 1928 Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, with whom she had worked closely at the Denishawn School, decided to move to New York City to pursue their own style of modern dance. It was here that they founded the Humphrey-Weidman Company. Humphrey’s theory of movement centered around the body’s relationship to gravity, which is often referred to as “fall and recovery”. She called this idea “the arc between two deaths”. On one end of the spectrum, an individual surrenders completely into gravity. On the other end, an individual resists gravity seeking balance. She also was keenly interested in the use of breath to facilitate movement. Her movement vocabulary emphasized the body’s natural rise and fall, and has thrilling climaxes of suspension and release. These principles not only guided her technique, but also guided her choreography. Where her teachers at the Denishawn School were drawing inspiration from abroad, Humphrey and Weidman drew inspiration from American life. Their choreography and their technique drew upon the shared sense of humanity in all of us, and often embodied the emotional and physical struggle to find equilibrium in the world.
Doris Humphrey was part of the first national program to financially support dance and dancers. It was created in the 1930’s as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Second New Deal. What was it called?
A) National Dance Project
B) Federal Dance Project
C) American Dance Project
D) Federal Art Project
In addition to being a renowned choreographer, Humphrey was also an original faculty member of Bennington College and The Julliard School. Her company featured several of the most prolific dancers of that generation, notably a Mexican-American immigrant named José Limón. With the onset of World War II and her worsening arthritis, Humphrey and Weidman disbanded their company in the 1940’s. In the 1946 when Limón began his own company he invited Humphrey to be his Artistic Director, making it the first American dance company to have an Artistic Director that differed from its founder. With the José Limón Dance Company, Humphrey further explored her movement theories and continued to choreograph. Even today, the Limón Company carries on her legacy of movement in relation to breath and gravity. Her book The Art of Making Dances is still widely used in composition classes today.
Did you know that Humphrey and Limón were not interested in creating a technique, but in exploring movement theories and choreographing? Humphrey-Limón technique classes are not codified, and the lineage is passed down from previous generations of dancers.
Over the past 55 years, RDT has acquired and performed numerous pieces of Humphrey’s choreography. As one of the most profound choreographers of her generation, preserving Humphrey’s choreography and technique is vital to RDT’s mission. Take a look at the list below of choreography from Humphrey that is part of RDT’s dance library. How many pieces have you seen? Which one was your favorite?
- – Soaring (1920)
- – The Shakers (1930)
- – Two Ecstatic Themes (1931)
- – Variations and Conclusion from New Dance (1935)
- – Day on Earth (1947)
- – Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor (1938)
- – Invention (1949)
- – With My Red Fires (1936)
- – Night Spell (1952)
- – Fantasy and Fugue (1952)
- – Ritmo Jondo (1953)
- – Water Study (1928)
- – – Performed by Children’s Dance Theatre in collaboration with RDT
You’ve read the introduction and learned material from Humphrey’s choreography. Now it’s your turn to create a phrase inspired by Humphrey’s principles!
- Fall and Recovery
- Swing Suspension
Using the guiding principles, create a short phrase of your own inspired by Humphrey’s movement theories. Here are some things to think about:
- How does your breath aid your movement?
- What actions and gestures feel natural in your body?
- What is your relationship to gravity? When are you resisting gravity, and when are you giving in?
- How can you use your entire body as a vessel for your emotions, rather than layering on specific performance faces?
- Is your whole body experiencing fall and recovery as a unit, or are you choosing specific body parts to fall or recover?
- What body parts are swinging?
- Where are your moments of suspension?
- What parts of your life are you drawing inspirations for your movement from?
- How does your movement reflect your individuality?
Use music that was the norm for choreographing in the 1900’s for your phrase. Classical composers like Bach, Beethoven, and Schumman are great places to start from.
Interested in More?
Read Humphrey’s book The Art of Making Dances to dive deeper into her choreographic style. Most of Humphrey’s works can be found in video form online as well. Just search “Doris Humphrey choreography” and see which ones are your favorite!
Barre – Pliés – 3/4, 88 bars, 90BPM
Begin with your feet in first position, sternum softened and arms hanging by your side. Inhale rise 1-2 exhale forward curve 3-4, inhale again to rise this time incorporating your arms 5-6, exhale into your forward curve and add plie 7-8. Inhale rise allowing your arms to reach up 1-3 fall into forward fold with bent elbows 4, rebound and let the arms balloon 5, drop catch 6, suspend releasing your left leg and arms and sternum 7 open to second position on 8. Repeat in full in second position, first position, and second position again (releasing your right leg instead).
Fun fact: Jose Limon was a lefty and always preferred to do the left side before the right.
Music: Because Humphrey / Limon is not a codified technique, you can technically use any music you like for class as long as the time signatures fit! I once again used Michael Wall’s soundFORballet CD for these combinations.
Barre – Degage 1 – 6/4, 40 bars, 96BPM
Begin in first position with natural, not forced, turn out. Brush your left leg forward 1-2 fall 3, rebound 4-5 close 6. Make sure that your standing heel stays grounded and that your back knee stays straight. Repeat to the side, to the back, and to the side.
Brush forward 1-2 fall 3, rebound and quarter ronde de jambe to the side 4-5 fall 6, to the back 1-2 fall 3, to the side 4-5 fall 6. Staying in second position plie your standing leg (right side) 1-3, left leg (adding torso) 4-6, right leg (adding torso and arms) curve through the center line to the left side 1-4 suspend with left leg off the ground 5 close 6. Repeat it to the right.
Centre – Grande Allegro (Slower) – 3/4, 256 bars, 155BPM
Think of your knees like a basketball, they have a little bit of suspension just like the ball does when you dribble. Make sure that your pelvis always stays in neutral.. a good way to self check is to try and look at your belly button on every swing.
Begin with your feet in parallel hips-width apart with your body angled on the left diagonal and your arms raised overhead. Drop swing to the center, leading with the top of your head and keeping the pelvis in neutral, 1-2 and repeat 3-4. Add a jump at the peak of your swing 5-6, and one more plain one to release your right leg and open up to face front 7-8. Repeat in the second position, keeping the torso upright 1-8. Start the whole combination again with the body facing the right diagonal, and then in second position.
Across the Floor
Repertory Based Exercise
- Seated Gestures
- Lyric Phrase
- Invention: Tyler
- Invention: Lauren
- Invention: Jaclyn
- Stag & Triplet Phrase
Lauren shares phrase work from Doris Humphrey’s piece Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor.
Lauren shares a walking phrase from Doris Humphrey’s piece Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor.
Lauren teaches the Lyric phrase from Doris Humphrey’s piece Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor.
RDT Alumni Dancer, Tyler Orcutt, introduces repertory from Invention by Doris Humphrey.
Lauren Curley introduces repertory from Invention by Doris Humphrey.
Jaclyn Brown introduces repertory from Invention by Doris Humphrey.
Lauren teaches a jumping and traveling phrase based of Limon repertory, Mazurkas.
Full Limón Classes
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RDT appreciates the generous funding provided by the Utah Legislature and the Utah Board of Education that help make our Arts-in-Education Programs possible in Utah’s Public Schools.