‘Missa Brevis,’ with its powerful antiwar message, anchors Limón Dance Company show

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Lauren Twomley, bottom, and members of Limón Dance Company in “Missa Brevis.”

Many choreographers have given us anti-war dances since José Limón created Missa Brevis in 1958, yet the barbarity of war remains unchecked and our artists continue to protest. Missa Brevis was the all-too-relevant centerpiece of the Limón Dance Company’s program, Feb. 17 at The Victoria Theater at The New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, where this classic modern dance troupe reaffirmed its founder’s deep commitment to humanity and peace.

Members of Limón Dance Company in “Missa Brevis.”

Few images in dance are as stirring and meaningful as the scene in Missa Brevis in which the huddled mass of dancers sink down, clasping hands, their faces lifted to the sky as if expecting any moment to hear the drone of enemy aircraft. Solemn and hushed in their apprehension, with the skeleton of a bombed cathedral looming above them, these figures are archetypes representing the numberless victims of modern warfare from the ruins of World War II to 9/11 and beyond.

We feel safe in our theater seats, watching them, but how safe are we? How long before we, too, must scan the air darkly for the first sign of approaching death?

Limón places us onstage, in fact, in the figure of The Outsider, a lonely observer who bears witness to the suffering of the ensemble, and who stretches face down on the floor in the shape of a cross as if taking up the burden of their martyrdom. Insinuating himself into the action, The Outsider is also able to portray the individual within the group. While the members of the ensemble are often linked, the Outsider’s hands are free to perform plaintive gestures appealing to Heaven, searching desperately for clarity and understanding amid unspeakable cruelties.

Members of Limón Dance Company in “Missa Brevis.”

At NJPAC, Lauren Twomley played The Outsider — a small woman in a role usually danced by a man. This gender-neutral casting (echoed within the ensemble) created partnering challenges and gave Missa Brevis a new look. It also made the dance more complicated and personal and reminded us that, especially in wartime, real people experience life in ways not limited by conventional notions of gender.

Twomley threw herself into the role with heartfelt energy; and Missa Brevis supplied a series of wrenching yet always dignified scenes, until the moment when the ensemble members once more raised their faces skyward while The Outsider bowed her head in grief.

For all its simplicity, this choreographic contrast (looking up, versus looking down) contains a wealth of significance; and Missa Brevis poses a challenge to contemporary audiences. Given that the U.S. government foments so much of the violence in the world today, we should ask ourselves whether in a democratic society it is our fate to remain Outsiders, helplessly watching from afar, until the inevitable moment when the wars of empire come home. Where is the peace movement that dances like this one should inspire?

Framing Miss Brevis were two works in sharply contrasting styles.

Members of Limón Dance Company in “Choreographic Offering.”

The bill opened with excerpts from Limón’s Choreographic Offering, a masterpiece of composition with the dancers’ figures sharply defined, yet with an elasticity in the body that conveys human emotion and spiritual yearning. A gesture with the arms crossed at the wrist, hands flattened like angel wings, recalls Doris Humphrey’s Passacaglia, and takes us even further back to Bronislava Nijinska’s Holy Etudes, a noble lineage of modern dances inspired by the music of Bach.

The novelty on the program — Raúl Támez’s Migrant Mother — from 2022, is a sprawling, loose-bodied creation that replaces Limón’s sculptural clarity with images suggesting pain, and a loss of physical and emotional control.

Támez was inspired by the syncretism of Catholicism and pre-Colombian religions in Mexico; composite images in which bodies appear fused are this ambitious dance’s most striking feature. The dramatic opening showed Jessica Sambelluri crouching centerstage, her long hair mysteriously veiling her face, as multiple arms and legs seemed to protrude from her body. As we watched, the figures behind her cradled and appeared to bury her. Other dancers arranged in a wide semi-circle began to churn and dash themselves to the ground, setting the tone for a piece filled with violent quivering and thrashing punctuated by screams. (The screaming was overdone.)

Recalling Paul Taylor’s Mexican-themed works De Sueños and De Sueños Que Se Repiten, Támez’s piece is an episodic phantasmagoria with hints of magic realism. In another composite image, Savannah Spratt advanced toward us, as though down the center aisle of the Baroque cathedral projected upstage, the hands of unseen figures reaching out from behind to grasp her. Attendants carried Mariah Gravelin, striding high above the stage wearing the brilliant, fanlike headdress of an Aztec potentate. Near the end, Eric Parra performed a version of the celebrated Yaqui Deer Dance, shivering in the throes of death.

In less flamboyant episodes, Twomley portrayed shell-shocked despair and flight; dancers appeared to be rounded up; and Nicholas Ruscica spasmed and collapsed. Arguably, these scenes are too vague; and at times, the dance meandered, accompanied by a playlist that included whispers and gunshots, folk ballads, pop songs and a standup comedy routine.

Along the way, the dancers’ convulsions grew wearisome. The multi-layered finale of Migrant Mother is itself an extravaganza, but the charm and gaiety of a simple folk-dance step came too late to dispel this dance’s somber atmosphere.

For more on Limon Dance Company, visit limon.nyc.

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