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UC Irvine student wins design competition for José Limón Dance Company

February 8, 2011 |  9:00 am

Sheryl Liu, a third-year scenic design student at UC Irvine, has been selected to create new sets and costumes for the José Limón Dance Company’s upcoming revival of Limón’s masterwork “The Emperor Jones.”

 SEmperor joneset to the music of Heitor Villa-Lobos, the dramatic dance work dating from 1956 draws upon Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 naturalistic stage play about a tyrannical home-grown dictator.

The original set and costume design, indicated in the photo of Limón below, will get a smart update in the hands of Liu. Only 26, she has contributed to projects at the Old Globe, the Lansburgh, and the Roundabout Theater companies, as well as at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Her designs for “Salomé” and “La Bohème” have been selected for EMERGE: 2011 at the Prague Quadrennial, the world’s top international stage design exhibition.
The Taiwan-raised Liu says, “A very funny thing is that they invited me to their workshop and I got there and learned that they didn’t like what I submitted. I think why I won is that I was able to let go of what I originally did and work with the director [former Limón dancer Clay Taliaferro]. I watched the choreography again and asked him what each section meant to him and what he wanted to communicate.

“I’m really excited, it’s my first job, and it’s a very good dance piece. It’s very complex, especially what the Emperor goes through: a series of nightmares and tortures from his past and also some African-American history is put in. I’m very moved by the dance.”

Taliaferro, whom Limón personally coached in the powerful lead role, is overseeing the reconstruction. The newly staged “Emperor” will premiere on April 29 in Culiacan, Mexico, in the state of Sinaloa, the birthplace of the great humanist dance pioneer.

Limon-EmperorJonesLimón grew up in Los Angeles. He graduated from Lincoln High School in 1926, and briefly attended UCLA as an art major. Leaving Los Angeles at 19, he moved to New York intending to paint. There he discovered modern dance and by 1930 was performing with the Humphrey-Weidman group. Under Doris Humphrey’s aegis, he became a leading choreographer and head of a widespread school of modern-dance technique, particularly influential on the generation he trained at the Juilliard School. 

Mexico figured prominently in Limón’s choreography. His first group work was “La Malinche” (1949), based on the story of Malintzin, the Indian princess who was mistress to Cortez. Limón turned often to Mexican themes, in “Danzas Mexicanas” (1939), “Ritmo Jondo” (1953), and “Carlota” (1972).

In 1951, artist Miguel Covarrubias, head of the Academia de la Danza of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, hosted Limón in Mexico City. Limon created several major works to music by Carlos Chávez and sets by Covarrubias. One was to Chávez’s “Los Cuatro Soles,” a massive symphonic work based on Aztec myths of the world’s creation. None of these works survive.

Following the April-May tour of Mexico, the Limón Company performs at New York’s John Jay College June 7–12, 2011.   

The design competition was co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts as part of its American Masterpieces program.

-- Debra Levine