The Moor’s creation

Ahead of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Shakespeare Dream Bill in September, we take a look at José Limón’s The Moor’s Pavane.


On 17 August 1949 at the Connecticut College American Dance Festival, José Limón’s The Moor’s Pavane was given its world premiere. Little did the four dancers on stage that night know that it would go on to be its creator’s most famous and most performed work, and something of a milestone in the history of American dance.

The four members of the José Limón Company involved were Limón himself, in the role of Othello (The Moor), Dutch-born former Kurt Jooss and Martha Graham dancer, Lucas Hoving as Iago (His Friend), choreographer and dancer Pauline Koner as Desdemona (The Moor’s Wife) and Betty Jones as Emilia (The Friend’s Wife). All four had significant creative input into the work – there were discussions about choreography, characters, content and plot points, as well as all the work done in the studio. Pauline Koner, for example, mapped out the scene with the handkerchief with José Limón, building on José’s initial work, which neither had so far found dramatically convincing.

The four worked on it all summer, to three different versions of the music, the final version of which was only decided upon after some considerable work had already gone into the choreography. The whole process led up to a dramatic and memorable premiere. José Limón recorded his memories of the process in a heart-felt letter to his three collaborators, written shortly after the tenth anniversary of the work’s first performance. Following is a excerpt from that letter.

A decade makes a neat package, and this round, easily comprehended sum of years has a way of going by very swiftly, almost before one is aware of its passing. It seems such a short while ago that the four of us stood on the stage at Palmer Auditorium in New London, waiting for the curtain to rise on a dance called The Moor’s Pavane. I remember the acute nervousness and apprehension which takes possession of one just before the curtain.

I remember thinking how beautiful you three looked, and knowing that whatever the outcome of the imminent ordeal, the spectator would see a very handsome and distinguished ensemble of dancers. I was more than usually shaken and insecure. This dance might prove, in the eyes of the public, to be an impertinence, an almost sacreligious presumption.

I know how hard I had tried not to make a ‘dance version’ of Shakespeare’s Othello. I had worked with all will and conscience to find a form which might prove valid and pertinent in terms of dance. I did not wish to infringe nor paraphrase.

From the moment when Mrs. Louis (Betts) Dooley, a few years previous to this evening in August 1949, had first put the idea into my very receptive mind, I had sought not a ‘retelling’ of Shakespeare’s Othello, but a dance based on the old Italian legend. ‘Betts’ had given me not only the impetus, but the form. She suggested using the four principal characters: Othello, Desdemona, Iago and Emilia, and unfold the tragedy in dances suggestive of those of the High Renaissance.

As is my custom when some kind and well-meaning friend comes to me with ‘just the idea for a dance for you and your company,’ I listened courteously, meaning to give it consideration, and then go on to my own ideas. But this one hung on.

MP-166Othello had always had a profound and powerful attraction for me, but I had no idea how to proceed other than to resort to a ‘choreographic version,’ and this I had no desire to do. Movement, gestures and pantomime were not enough – a form was needed, a form strong and distinct enough to justify the whole effort. It took about three years of brooding. The four principal protagonists, yes. That drastic removal from the play was an important step. But how to bring forth all the passion, grandeur, beauty, all the tragedy with only four dancers? The three years were an intense and incessant search for the answers.

They came slowly. There was the usual turmoil and ferment. There were periods of great exaltation, when the solution seemed imminent, or even accomplished. This, as you might know, was almost surely followed by the disappointment of knowing that what had seemed resolved the day before was a mere delusion, and I had to begin all over again…

You Pauline, you Lucas and Betty, plus myself and an idea, are the ingredients which compose the dance whose tenth anniversary we have so recently observed. What each of you is as a human being and an artist has gone into it and made it what it is. I have no way, not being good as statistics or calculations, of knowing how many times we have performed it. I think you will remember with me that it has been active in our repertory on almost all of our yearly tours in this country. We have taken it with us to Mexico, to Canada, to Brazil, Uruguay, Puerto Rico. It has gone to England, France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Poland, Yugoslavia and Portugal. Audiences have liked it very much.

MP-103 Walter Strate

But that which makes me most happy and proud is that this unique, really rare and select group of artists has held together to perform this work for one decade. I think it speaks well for all of us, when you consider how transient and ephemeral artistic associations tend to be in general, that the four of us, with our divergencies in background, training and individual temperaments, have managed to fuse and weld ourselves to each other. I think it is because of a faith, a belief. We believe powerfully in the dance. I could not possibly admire each of you more. I prize you as only a fine artist and dancer is prized. To me there is nothing more wonderful than a dancer, and a dancer such as you are is doubly wonderful.

The Moor’s Pavane forms part of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Shakespeare Dream Bill at The Lowry from Thursday 15 to Saturday 17 September 2016.

(José Limón, 1959. Reproduced by kind permission of the José Limón Institute; taken from the Limón Journal volume 4, spring 2001.)

This article was originally published in Entrechat (Winter 2015 / Spring 2016). Reproduced with permission from Birmingham Royal Ballet.