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José Limón Documentary Director Plans Re-Release

Malachi Roth Looks to Art Enthusiasts to Crowd Fund Film's Release in Perpetuity

By Michael Phelan

Released in 2001, "José Limón: A Life Beyond Words" is the only documentary film made about Limón, one of the most notable figues in modern dance. In an interview with BayDance.com, director Malachi Roth explained his reasons for re-releasing the film, what is needed to get the job done, and the personal connection and influence José Limón has had on his life.

"Limón: A Life Beyond Words" was first released 14 years ago. Are you re-releasing it as part of the celebration of the 70th anniversary of Limón's Company?

It's not really about the anniversary of the Comapny. We hope to raise money to re-release the film for its 20th anniversary. We hope to increase visibility of the film so at some point we can do a crowd funding compaign to fund the re-release.

Malachi Roth

Are you hoping that releasing the film again now will reach a new generation to appreciate his work?

Yeah, I mean the film never really got as much visibility as we'd wanted. It got tied up in rights issues for a long time. It aired in about 100 cities in North America, but after it ran on Public Television, we weren't able to get it distributed in other ways. So, this is an attempt leading up to the 20th anniversary of the film, where we might restore some previously edited out sections, to raise the visibility of the film. I think there are older generation people who knew Limón in his day, but who haven't seen the film. So we want to get it on their radar screen, and definitely younger people. We've had a short version of the film shown in New York City public schools, and I've heard anecdotes of young people watching it and really enjoying it.

The other films you've directed include a documenatary, All Life, about peoples of the world, and a fictional story about a disillusioned government agent. Do you share a social concern with José Limón that got you interested in directing a film about him?

I got involved in making this film because my mother (Ann Vachon) was in Limón's Company for much of my childhood. She realized that nobody had made a definitive documentary about him. Because she taught dance history, she thought that this was something lacking, that a film was necessary to give people a kind of overview. So we decided to start working on it together. I didn't know that much about him, but when I saw the archival footage of his dances, I read into them and I saw the social consciousness in his work. It was exciting to me. What I realized over the course of working on it was that he was my mother's mentor, and she raised me. So I was able to kind of get Limón's view of art as a tool of social consciousness, I kind of got that through her without even realizing it. Making the film was a discovery of how those processes get passed down from one generation to the next, and you're not aware of it. So it was pretty exciting. As far as interpreting his dances, I wasn't sure how I was going to express that in the documentary. I made certain assumptions, but none of the people we interviewed were really talking about that. But then we found Limón's handwritten autobiography in the Lincoln Center archives, and it really confirmed a lot of what I suspected about his work. So we were able to use his own words describing his own impulses that influenced his work, that inspired him.


Limón's dance technique is emotionally expressive, inspirational. Do you think he was influenced by what was happening around him in society at the time, or by his personal experiences?

That's a good question. You know, it really is such a blend. The personal might be more prevalent with Limón because his work was personal and he was an artist first and foremost, and he wasn't a part of the more radical socially conscious movements of his time. But then when he describes his most moving experience in observing dance, it wasn't for his mentor Doris Humphrey, it was for Martha Graham, some pieces that she made that were anti-fascist.

And so I think, you know, rather than be comfortable with more radical left-leaning sentiments, José was impassioned by a centrist philosophy embodied by the popular front and the various coalitions to fight fascism. So I feel that, when he described being so moved by her work, it's almost that he's saying that Martha Graham never moved him quite that much again, and that was when he was still young and kind of forming himself. I feel that that was the moment when maybe he understood what he wanted to do to an audience, which was to get them fired up. You know, he had felt very hopeless during those years when the Nazis were on the rise, and so I think he felt that art could nourish him with kind of a fighting spirit, which he carried through, which is clear from people who told stories about him, that he carried that through his career, that kind of dedication and sense of a greater purpose than just to create art. So, it was humanistic values and his anti-fascist values that really was the link that he would have wanted to make in history, to explain the political underpinnings of his work. And then there would be the personal side, where as a Mexican immigrant he probably felt more threatened.

Did you have to learn how his technique worked to understand the themes he expressed? Did you have to learn anything about dance?

It was hard for me to understand dance technique as an outsider. And I heard a lot of talk about "the breath" and "fall and recovery". But over time that central element, which is elusive and ambiguous, but is what a lot of people refer to when they talk about his technique, it's something similar to the breath in singing. I started to pick up on that. It sounds almost like an acting technique. Limón's technique has been described as being for "actor dancers". So I could connect to it that way, that the content was what was first and foremost. Limón was not a very acrobatic dancer, and his acting abilities were very strong. He wanted each dancer to sort of do their own thing rather than all fit into a mold. He wanted each dancer to do their own particular dance. So it seems his technique might be more of a way of pulling that out of dancers, but I do feel a little out of my element speaking on that part of it.

In retrospect, 14 years later, is there anything you would do differently if you were to make or remake the film today?

Well, there is. One thing I would do is I would allow the dance section, that's what I'd really love to do, to let the dance section be on screen a little longer and fill that part of it out. I think it got a little truncated, and my aim with the film was to give people his biography, and that when it came to the dance sections, that could be left alone and they could just appreciate them without much voiceover. I felt the voiceover can hurt the dance when you have too much of it. That's the main thing. And there's a few little stories, that I sometimes tell people, that didn't get into the film. But I don't think I would want to tinker with it too much because it kind of came to its natural resting point. So lenghtening the dances is probably the main thing.

Will there be any screenings in the near future?

Our aim is to schedule a lot of screenings so we can show the film, sell DVDs, and collect information from people who want to sign up on our mailing list so we can gear up for doing the crowd funding campaign to re-release the film. Rights bills are a huge issue for the film. That's why it's so tricky. I knew that what drew me into the film was the archival footage of José doing his own pieces, so that's what we wound up using a lot of, and in order to get the film in perpetuity where we know that we can keep re-releasing it, we have to raise more money.

For more information, visit the Limón: A Life Beyond Words web site or email joselimondoc@gmail.com.

BayDance © 1998 Michael W. Phelan. All photographs in BayDance.com retain the copyright of the respective dance company and photographer.BayArea.com Site of the Week
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Last modified: Monday, January 11, 2016 6:41 PM