If my memoir about Byrne Miller were a traditional biography, I’d be trolling through genealogy records to trace her roots. But Byrne’s biological ancestry is less important to me than her dance heritage – so I bought a ticket to see the Jose Limon dance company in New York last week.
The New York Times reviewer didn’t seem impressed, but I know with utter certainty that Byrne would have given him an earful. She reviewed dozens of performances by dancers (she was tough, once calling Pilobolus “boring”)and the NYT reviewer missed all the aspects that she would have found so powerful in Limon’s work. The dancers were hypnotically rhythmic and understated – they aren’t actors, they let the steps lead to a story. Byrne once said she feared modern dance was becoming too athletic – that the artistry was being lost. In Jose Limon’s legacy company, she can rest in peace. The dancers are strong but never overpowering; they work the floor as much as the air above it.
A woman danced the piece Jose Limon created for himself, the 1942 “Chaconne,” set to Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor for unaccompanied violin, and she was restrained in her power and expression because he was. She even wore men’s clothing. It wasn’t about her interpretation of his choreography; she was giving the audience the gift of time travel. I saw in her the connections Byrne once made. I stood up cheering wildly, just like the rest of the audience, when she took her formal bow at the waist – she was accepting appreciation for his work as much as hers.
In Limon’s choreography, I see Byrne’s inspiration and an eerily similar path to dance. Byrne started out training to be a classical pianist and was sucked into the vortex of dance when she saw Harald Kreutzberg perform an opening act for a Saturday matinée in the 1920s. The same thing happened to the Mexican painter Jose Limon; he saw Harald and gave over his life to dance.
Though I have no evidence that Byrne’s and Limon’s paths directly crossed, they share another pivotal connection. The handsome German dancer Lucas Hoving gave up ballet to dance for the company Limon eventually founded, and Byrne ended up being the principal dancer in the company Lucas Hoving eventually created in Connecticut. It’s like that in dance – the students become the teachers, the protégé’s add to the body of knowledge and transcend it. Byrne Miller certainly did her part.