"It’s a piece so unlike what you see on the stage today,” says veteran dancer Sarah Stackhouse, wistfully comparing current fashions in contemporary dance with “There Is a Time,” a masterpiece that her mentor, the late Jose Limon, choreographed in 1956. Summing up Limon’s genius, she adds, “He was brilliant because he had the nerve to be simple.”
“He wasn’t interested in doing tricks,” Stackhouse says. “Jose’s work is more about feelings and emotions. He wanted to find the human experience.”
Whether discovering this profound and sympathetic dance-maker for the first time, or renewing an acquaintance, Princeton audiences will have the chance to savor “There Is a Time” on Friday, April 8, when American Repertory Ballet (ARB) performs the work in a program titled “Masters of Dance and Music,” at the McCarter Theater.
Limon’s 20th-century classic will share a triple bill with Kirk Peterson’s “Glazunov Variations,” a divertissement based on the 19th-century ballet “Raymonda,” and with resident choreographer Mary Barton’s latest premiere, set to Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The Princeton Symphony, under the baton of Michael Pratt, will accompany the last two pieces live.
For connoisseurs of modern dance, however, “There Is a Time” will be the main draw. Inspired by verses from Ecclesiastes and set to a Pulitzer Prize-winning score composed for the purpose by Norman Dello Joio, Limon’s creation depicts life as an eternal circle set awhirl by the force of opposites chasing each other. This polarity recalls the Chinese concept of yin and yang.
In a series of 12 dramatic episodes, the choreography illustrates “A Time to Be Born” and “A Time to Die;” “A Time to Embrace” and “A Time to Refrain from Embracing;” “A Time to Mourn” and “A Time to Laugh.” Stackhouse initially staged the dance for ARB in 2015 when the troupe participated in the Jose Limon International Dance Festival held at New York’s Joyce Theater. The festival anticipated the 70th anniversary of the Limon Dance Company this year.
Stackhouse, who recently celebrated her 80th birthday, danced for the master from 1958 to 1969. Now she has a second career teaching his most famous works to others, but she says the task is complicated. While the dancers in a choreographer’s own company are familiar with his style, outsiders typically are not; and with budgets tight, the time needed to absorb Limon’s approach can be in short supply. Then, too, Stackhouse feels that dancers today are often more concerned with virtuosity than with delving into a role and revealing their inner light. “Now it’s not so much that we want to see the inside character of a human being. We just want to see the outside brilliance of their movement. So that’s a little difficult,” she says. “It’s not how many beautiful turns you can do, or how high the legs go. That was anathema to him,” she says, referring to Limon. “To simply show off on stage was not what he was interested in.”
The choreographer’s fabled succinctness — an economy of gesture perhaps best illustrated by his masterpiece “The Moor’s Pavane” — makes every movement in his dances appear essential, with nothing ever wasted. Yet this economy creates a challenge of its own. “Because it is so spare, the dancers need to fill [it] with a tremendous passion and care for it,” Stackhouse continues. “The individual has to be willing to enter the world of metaphor, which creates artistry. If not, you just have a body wiggling around on stage.
“Jose didn’t often give us any feedback or coaching,” she recalls. “He simply gave us the movement and allowed us to do what we could do with it. I had to discover what was in those works and why. So I spent hours working by myself.”
Her own process of re-staging the dances is vastly different, Stackhouse reveals, but she still feels it is essential for the performers to continue to work on their roles after group rehearsals have ended. “I give a lot of feedback. I coach to the point where sometimes the dancers would like very much to kill me,” she says only half joking.
Yet she adds, “For me it’s absolutely essential to work alone, because only then do you begin to understand your own self in movement. Rather than just doing pirouettes and getting perfection you’re seeing how your body wants to take that phrase and extend it out a little bit more, or change the dynamic, or play with the timing.
“In Jose’s work there’s a lot of space in which you as an individual, as an artist, can move. Once you do that, everything in your life gets stronger. You begin to really know yourself — what you’re terrible at; what you’re good at; what pleases you; and what makes you laugh. I see Limon’s dance as incredible human therapy.
“You have to really dig deeply into your resources as a human being and as a dancer,” she says.
Stackhouse, who studied tap and ballet as a child in her native Michigan, first encountered Limon when she was a junior in high school. By that time her family had moved east, and she received a scholarship to study that summer at the American Dance Festival in New London, Connecticut. “For some reason I had the nerve to sign myself up for his professional class, and it was just incredible. I knew at the very start that I wanted to do his work,” she recalls. “There was really no choice for me. That was it.”
Before embarking on a dance career, however, Stackhouse, the daughter of a teacher, earned a BS degree at the University of Wisconsin in the program founded by legendary dance educator Margaret H’Doubler. “We were required to take physiology and physics, which I almost flunked,” Stackhouse says. “We had a year of anatomy, with corpses that had been already used by med students.”
At that time, Stackhouse says, studying dance in college “was more about teaching dance to children. But I stuck with it, and I had wonderful friends. I don’t think any of us really knew what we were doing, but we got together on the weekends and taught each other. We sort of discovered dancing for ourselves.”
After graduation Stackhouse headed to New York, where she continued her modern dance training, also studying Afro-Cuban dance and jazz. During this time she worked part-time teaching dance for the Police Athletic League; stage-managing dance concerts at the Y; and running lights for Off-Broadway productions. She didn’t make much money. “But living was cheap,” she says. “It was so much easier to live in New York in the early 1960s. I felt like I had to be dancing all the time, and at that point it only cost something like $1.50 to take a class. Now you have to be rich to study dance, which seems crazy.”
Stackhouse says she still had her heart set on dancing for Limon, however, and it wasn’t long before she got her chance. “Jose needed extra dancers for his ‘Missa Brevis’ . So that was my first piece with him. He was doing that at Connecticut College, where he and his company were in residence every summer. Although I wasn’t in the company, I would go up on the weekends to rehearse. And then in 1960 the company was to do a tour of South America, under the auspices of the cultural division of the State Department. That was, again, an extended company, so I was taken into the company then. And I just stayed.”
The young dancer’s hunger for movement and passion for her work helped her advance until she became one of the company’s most outstanding figures — although these artists never called themselves stars. On a subsequent tour two of Limon’s soloists hurt themselves and Stackhouse saw an opportunity. “When we were rehearsing there would come the time that Ruth [Currier] should have been doing her solo, but she was injured, so I ran up on stage and I just did it,” Stackhouse recalls. “And Jennifer Muller did the same thing. So we got very nice roles because we worked so hard. I never missed watching rehearsal. I never missed studying and working alone by myself, which allowed me to keep growing as a dancer.”
After her career as a performer with the Limon company ended she continued to dance with Daniel Nagrin and in the company of Annabelle Gamson, where Stackhouse interpreted the solos of Isadora Duncan. From Gamson, Stackhouse says she also learned to use space in a new way. “She had, incredibly, the ability to make space visible. And that’s very important for Jose’s work, also, because he works with a spatial metaphor all the time. So the more you acknowledge that space is something to be moved and manipulated, the more rich Jose’s dancing, and surely Duncan’s dancing, becomes.”
Today Stackhouse, based in New York, brings that experience to her stagings of Limon pieces like “A Choreographic Offering,” “The Moor’s Pavane,” “Missa Brevis,” “There Is a Time,” and a solo the late choreographer made for himself — “Chaconne” — which Stackhouse says she was the first woman to dance.
Her first foray as a repetiteur for the Limon company came in the early 1970s, when she traveled to France to stage “The Moor’s Pavane” for the Paris Opera. Working with the legendary Rudolf Nureyev was not an easy job, she says, though this temperamental artist would introduce “The Moor’s Pavane” to new audiences around the world when the dance become a staple of tours by his pick-up company, Nureyev and Friends.
“He was not interested in some female modern dancer telling him what to do,” Stackhouse recalls. “But he definitely knew himself as an artist. So he came in, let’s say, two days before a performance and wanted to reorganize things according to what he wanted to do. I said, ‘OK, Nureyev, go do your thing.’ The Paris Opera at that time considered themselves the best in the world, along with the Russians, who were also the best in the world. Yeah, that was not a lot of fun.”
On the other hand, Stackhouse says she treasures the memory of working with Paris Opera Ballet dancers Jean Guizerix and his wife, the late Wilfride Piollet, both adventurers who embraced the modern repertoire. “They were such interesting artists, and so daring. They were really beautiful. So that was fun! I had a grand time with them.”
Working with ARB, Stackhouse says, has been a positive experience; and since the troupe has contracted to perform “There Is a Time” for three years, she says she knows the dancers will have the time they need to grow into their roles.
“Little by little the dancers get more deeply invested in it, and find themselves as individuals in it,” Stackhouse says. “Generally there are a number of people in these settings who feel they’ve made a breakthrough in how they think, and how they work on their dancing, so that’s always thrilling and rewarding.”
In another work on the program, Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony begins with a series of crashing sounds that ARB’s resident choreographer, Mary Barton, says reminded her of thunder claps. She recalled that as Beethoven lay dying, thunder had sounded and lightning had flashed as heaven itself lamented the great composer’s passing. Beethoven himself, of course, could not hear the uproar. In one of history’s most ironic tragedies, the Romantic genius spent his final 10 years isolated from the world by deafness. He also suffered from cirrhosis, and had been ill much of his life.
Barton’s ballet, she explains, begins at the end and then flashes back to illustrate some of the major themes of the composer’s work and the incidents that marked his stay on earth. “I am trying to show the journey this incredible artist took, the things he felt deep inside, and [his] ultimate triumph over adversity,” Barton says.
Inspired by quotations selected from Beethoven’s letters and other writings, the choreographer has created a ballet for 12 dancers, with Michael Landez playing Beethoven and others portraying Fate, Art, the Immortal Beloved, and an ensemble of rambunctious musical notes whom the composer must tame. Projections on two moveable screens will create a sense of atmosphere.
“Even though some of his music could be bombastic and angry,” Barton says, “there was always this hopeful, beautifully shining thread woven throughout. No matter how dark he went, there was always this bit of music that seemed to climb a stairway to some better place. There was this little, hopeful voice in everything.”
Masters of Dance and Music, American Repertory Ballet, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Friday, April 8, 8 p.m. $20 to $50. 609-258-2787 or mccarter.org.