“I have great pity for these unhappy human beings, and for the anguish of spirit which they must experience and the torment in which they must live. And when I feel something very keenly, I have to make a dance about it.” – José Limón
In 1954, modern dance pioneer José Limón choreographed The Traitor. Limón was inspired by the sociopolitical climate of the late 1940s and early 1950s when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) started to investigate artists in the entertainment industry for communist ties. As McCarthyism grew and traitors were seemingly everywhere, Limón drew parallels to the story of Judas Iscariot. Limón wanted to display the emotional complexity of betrayal through the story of Judas, thus creating his masterwork The Traitor.
The Traitor is being performed at the University of Florida in Dance 2019: Past / Forward under the supervision of Dante Puleio. Puleio, a newly appointed visiting assistant professor in dance, brings his years of experience with the Limón Dance Company as a principal dancer and soloist to the work at UF.
Puleio discussed with Elizabeth Johnson, the Dance 2019: Past / Forward director and assistant professor in the School of Theatre + Dance, the possibility of working on a Limón piece for the show. After the licensing director at the José Limón Dance Foundation, Brenna Monroe-Cook, asked if he would be interested in restaging The Traitor with a mix-gendered cast, he was all in.
“I have been very interested in restaging this work for years,” Puleio said. “This piece continues to make me fall in love with Limón and I wanted to pass along that passion and connection in a place that I thought would respond well to both the work and the process.”
Historically, The Traitor calls for a cast of eight men and has been exclusively performed by all men until this restaging. In this cast, the two main characters, the Leader and the Traitor, are both portrayed by women, Jeena Prasertlum and Noesha Noel. Four out of the six follower roles are also women.
One of the followers, senior dance student Danielle Frost, expressed how humbling it is to be one of the first women to perform in The Traitor.
“By doing so we are not only experiencing and honoring history but expanding upon it," Frost said. "This work has been touched by generations of dancers and I am so proud to be a part of this community of artists."
Daniel Lewis, a former member of the Limón Dance Company, came to the University of Florida to share his professional experience with this new generation of dancers.
Lewis was a dancer with the company from 1962 to 1974 and eventually took over as artistic director after Limón’s death. He not only shared the stage with Limón numerous times but developed a personal relationship with him as well.
Lewis is also known as a master reconstructor, an expert on restaging Limón’s choreographic works. He spent a weekend in rehearsals working with Puleio and the UF dancers in The Traitor to refine the work.
The dancers expressed that they were almost nervous for Lewis to work with them. There was anxiety over whether the women in the piece could give the same weight, literally and metaphorically, to roles originally and specifically choreographed for male dancers.
Noesha Noel, a freshman dance student, dances the role of the Traitor, which was originally performed by José Limón himself.
“I know that I have really big shoes to fill,” Noel said. “It’s a huge honor being able to perform the same role that a legend once performed but at the same time, there’s a lot riding on the performance.”
During the first run of the piece in rehearsal, Lewis took no notes. After the dancers were finished, he simply looked at them and said, “I’m impressed.”
Throughout the weekend he continued to work with the dancers and dive more into their movement qualities to find the underlying meanings of the work. Lewis brings a unique perspective to the work since he knew Limón personally and spent so long with the company.
Jeena Prasertlum, dancing the role of the Leader, revealed how amazing it was to work with Lewis.
"Danny was so honest and passionate about this work that it truly inspired all of us,” Prasertlum said. “He knew exactly what José Limón’s vision was and clearly helped us get to that point.”
Puleio joked that although he has reset other Limón works, he has never had a master reconstructor come and “check up on his homework.” After Lewis’s visit, he was excited by how well received the work was by Lewis. Puleio emphasized that he was proud of the work the dancers put in and how they have grown into the movement.
“The dancers here are phenomenal,” Puleio said. “They have a great sense of raw passion but they combine it with their talent and technique.”
Puleio and Lewis agree that the dancers bring a new light to the piece and that they have both found new ways of looking at The Traitor. The dancers expose the characters of Limón’s dramatic choreography through their unique “raw” energy.
“I want someone to walk away with an understanding of what the other side of what betrayal looks like and maybe think about that next time before they’re ready to snap judgement,” Pulieo said.
The Traitor will be performed in Dance 2019: Past / Forward February 22 through 24 in the Constans Theatre on UF’s campus.
Tickets are $14 for students, $16 for faculty and staff, $16 for seniors, and $20 for the general public. Tickets can be purchased online at ticketmaster.com or at the University Box Office.
Learn more about performance times here.