The Dead Can Dance

Choreographer honors teacher with dance celebrating Day of the Dead.

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The José Limón Dance Company State Theatre, 1519 Euclid Avenue 8 p.m. Saturday, September 24; $15 to $47; call 800-766-6048
Jos Limn Dance Company celebrates life and death at the - State Theatre on Saturday.
Jos Limn Dance Company celebrates life and death at the State Theatre on Saturday.
As Lar Lubovitch pieced together the dance moves for "Recordare," the veteran choreographer threw in every high kick and suspended leap in his arsenal. But he'll still fidget in his seat when the José Limón Dance Company premieres the work at Playhouse Square this weekend.

It's not that he thinks the dancers can't pull off the spirited piece; he simply wants to do justice to his late friend, who founded the 12-member troupe 60 years ago. "He had a lot of impact on my particular sense of movement and theater," says Lubovitch, whose résumé also boasts figure-skating routines for Dorothy Hamill and Peggy Fleming. "The beauty of his work is that there is no irony. He took emotions and humanity and put them in it in a very straightforward, nonironic way."

Lubovitch took the same no-nonsense approach with the 25-minute "Recordare," which is Latin for "remember." In memory of Limón -- who died of cancer in 1972 -- Lubovitch based the piece on the traditions of Limón's hometown of Culiacan, Mexico, one of the oldest cities on the Pacific coastline. The people there celebrate the annual Día de los Muertos ("Day of the Dead") every November 2 as a tribute to their ancestors. Throughout the day, families clean their forefathers' gravestones, light candles, and plant fresh flowers.

"It's the day the deceased come back to visit," says Lubovitch, whose choreography earned him a 1986 Tony Award nomination for his work on Into the Woods. "It's about the Aztec belief that death isn't the final thing. It's an occasion when we move to another plane of life. On this day, the dead and living can be reunited. It's celebratory, but melancholic as well."

As part of the tribute, townspeople act out the Pageant of the Village of Santa de los Maravillas ("Marigolds") by scattering the flower's brilliantly colored petals on paths that link each cemetery to all the homes in Culiacan. Lubovitch decided to incorporate the ritual into the dance to "light the pathway" between the living and the dead.

"It involves a lot of merrymaking and folklore and retelling of funny, but sometimes grotesque, tales of the dead," says Lubovitch. "It's kind of darkly humorous."

The dance will precede the company's production of Limón's signature pieces, "A Choreographic Offering" (set to Bach's "Musical Offering") and "The Moor's Pavane," which is the same number Lubovitch saw as a 19-year-old in Chicago, when he bought tickets to his first Limón performance. That fall, he enrolled in Juilliard's dance program, which Limón helped teach.

Looking back, Lubovitch calls the Chicago show a "thunderclap and epiphany." "I knew at once I was meant to dance, to choreograph," says Lubovitch, who founded his own dance troupe in 1968. "It's that performance that turned me completely around and shed light on what my future was to be. When I saw it, I saw the two things I did best and loved most: dance and gymnastics. I knew that what I was watching was who I was and what I wanted to do in life."

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