BECKET — Founded in 1946 by two gentle giants of the modern dance world — pioneering Doris Humphrey and her devoted pupil, the Mexican-born José Limón — the Limón Dance Company has appeared frequently at Jacob’s Pillow Dance, itself founded by another early guiding force in the genre, Ted Shawn. This week, Limón returns to Shawn’s theater. The history of the artistic bloodlines in American modern dance is both weighted and delicate for those dance artists who are drawn to working in the iconic houses of the “early moderns.” Weighted can become stodgy, delicate can become fussy. Not so with the Limón troupe, which, now directed by former company member Dante Puleio, continues to find a beautiful balance between homage and continuity.
Humphrey’s 1928 “Air for the G String,” staged by Gail Corbin, has a scent of antiquity, but in a timeless sense. The lovely, spirited cast of five women — Savannah Spratt leading Mariah Gravelin, Deepa Liegel, Jessica Sgambelluri, and Lauren Twomley — are at once stately and playful, like figures on a Grecian vase come alive, toe-heeling gracefully to Bach’s familiar tune. They float and flit in simple patterns that form and dissipate like mist on a mountain, or briefly conjure the five linked figures in Henri Matisse’s 1910 painting “Dance.” Matisse’s movers are naked, whereas these women wear voluminous capes whose long trains coil about them or trail and snake behind. Originally designed by Pauline Lawrence and gorgeously re-created here by Ali Lane, these costumes become alive too.
Of the two Limón pieces on this program, “The Waldstein Sonata,” set to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 21, is the one that perhaps shows more directly the early mentor/mentee relationship shared between Humphrey and Limón, with its often-sculptural choreography. To the score’s sweetly limpid second movement, a trio of overlapping duets traverse the stage; the familiar motif of a dancer being lifted by another in a grand jeté is made new by being deconstructed, with especially delicious slowness when MJ Edwards lifts Gravelin, the two sharing a poetic, private tactility. In their duet, Sgambelluri stands, in parallel, on one of Joey Columbus’s thighs while he paddles with his free leg, the two pivoting carefully; the image is striking, full of trust and strength yet hinting at precariousness.
The faster traveling sequences in other parts of this dance, however, have the unmistakable Limón stamp, a glorious rush of now sweeping, now skittering frolics — the sheer life force is visceral. A sense of community shows up again and again, dancers often extending their arms and then linking to one another with clasped hands, forming lines or circles with fluid kinship. (It premiered in excerpted form in 1971; one of Limon’s former students, Daniel Lewis, fleshed out the work into its now complete form after Limon’s death in 1972.) This dance is an easy, joyful pleasure to watch, yes, and the joy is palpable in the dancers too.
Limón’s 1967 “Psalm” is also infused with that unmistakably Limónesque torrent of pure movement, as well as the power of humanity and life rife in his dances; the tone here, however, is sober, dramatic. Set to the spare yet often-suspenseful original, revived score by Eugene Lester, Limón, explores persecution, and the potential for protection from such suffering. The patterning and the choreography are superb; the heaviness of the subject, the direct, if abstract images of crucifixion — at times, Columbus, in the lead role as “The Burden Bearer,” extends his arms out to the sides, his head inclined down and to one side, like Christ on the cross — could, however, very easily tip into dated melodrama.
(The new work on the program, Olivier Tarpaga’s “Only One Will Rise,” is an interesting companion piece of sorts to “Psalm” but is perhaps not served well where it sits on the program, at the end. With an engaging, eclectic score played live by Tim Motzer, Daniel Johnson, and Saidou Sangare, there is a central figure here too, one who is alternately encircled by and possibly held back/intimidated by the ensemble. There is a trance-like, even trippy kind of feeling in the various solos, duets, and other groupings, but a less-clear idea of how it all coheres as a piece.)
Returning to “Psalm,” the care taken in rehearsals by stager Logan Frances Kruger with coaching by Nina Watt — is evident, as is the whole-hearted, fully-embodied commitment of the dancers. Columbus, and the entire cast — especially Frances Lorraine Samson in her absorbing, enigmatic opening solo — are steadfast, compelling, and thus “Psalm” lives in this moment, a timeless ode to humanity.
LIMÓN DANCE COMPANY
At Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, through Sunday. Tickets $65-$85. 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org
Janine Parker can be reached at email@example.com.