Dancing to light the darkness

Photo Courtesy of KellyPuleio
South Orange resident Jessica Sgambelluri will take the stage Saturday, Feb. 17, with the Limón Dance Company at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

The internationally known Limon Dance Company will be performing for one night in Newark with a South Orange resident as one of its star performers.

Jessica Sgambelluri will take the stage Saturday, Feb. 17, at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center as the company performs two classic works and the New Jersey premiere of “Migrant Mother” by Raúl Tamez.

“This program is really, very powerful,” Sgambelluri said, adding that it seems like the world is in a divided and dark place right now but hopefully this work can bring some light.

“In places of raven blackness, one person cannot bring light,” she said. “But a community can. I hope at least one person in the audience can be affected by this and walk away feeling that there are things that are so beautiful they can bring you to your feet.”

The Limón Dance Co. was founded in 1946 by Limón and Humphrey. Limón is credited with creating one of the world’s most important and enduring dance legacies— an art form responsible for the creation, growth and support of modern dance.

Dante Puleio, Limon’s artistic director, said this was a big year for Sgambelluri.

“It’s an exciting moment for any dancer to step in the crucifixus solo and we are excited for Jessica to be exploring that role this season,” Puleio said. The crucifixus solo is a key section of the dance called, “Missa Brevis,” that will be performed.

Sgambelluri, who grew up in Warren County, N.J., and just over the line in Pennsylvania, has been dancing since she was in preschool.

“I never really stopped,” she said, adding she danced all through high school at a studio and with a private coach before moving on to college.

Sgambelluri, who is 31 now, graduated from Marymount College in Manhattan with a bachelor of fine arts in dance.

“After college I had thought that ballet would be the field that I would pursue but it became clear that most of my power would be in modern dance,” Sgambelluri said. “I pursued the Graham technique, developed by Martha Graham.”

She danced in the Martha Graham junior company for two years before auditioning and being accepted into the Buglisi Dance Theater in New York. She described their work, which is based on Martha Graham’s teachings, as “dramatic, vulnerable and really stunning.”

“It took hold of me,” she said.

She also began taking Limon classes, which she describes as “very far” from Graham, and eventually was accepted into the prestigious Limon company.

“When doing Graham, I feel like it’s a departure from humanity whereas Limon is a celebration and expansion of all that you are as a human and all you can be,” Sgambelluri said. “It tests who you are currently and what you are capable of that you are not aware of. It tests the laws of physics. And the ability to keep going.”
The continuing theme of Limon is human resilience and hope, she said.

Physically, the pelvis is the driving force behind much of the movement in Graham based dance, which is very primal and depends on your anatomy. Limon, conversely, involves falling to the ground and getting back up, symbolizing the grand scale of human experience, she said.

Limón was the first dance group to tour internationally under the auspices of the State Department, and first modern dance company to perform at Lincoln Center in New York. It has performed twice at The White House.

Sgambelluri has performed internationally in Germany, Mexico and elsewhere and domestically in California, Florida, Arizona and all around the northeast but this will be her first performance at NJPAC.

The evening will open with an excerpt of Jose Limón’s “A Choreographic Offering.” In this full Company work Limón celebrates Humphrey, honoring her craftsmanship as one of the founders of modern dance.

The group will also perform the 65-year-old “Missa Brevis” featuring a newly constructed backdrop honoring Ming Cho Lee who created the original design. Limón called this work his “prayer for peace.” Zoltán Kodály, the Hungarian composer, wrote the music under great hardship during the siege of Budapest. Its first performance was given in the cellar of a bombed-out church.

Another program highlight is the New Jersey premiere of “Migrant Mother” by Raúl Tamez. Tamez is the first Mexican choreographer to create a work for the Company since Limón. He won a 2022 Bessie Award for Outstanding Choreography for “Migrant Mother,” a tributary piece to the grief and pain that migrant mothers endure.

“We are offering a program that will leave everyone full of empathy and joy,” said Sgambelluri, who moved to South Orange from New York about five years ago.

“I love it here,” she said. “It feels a bit more like my spirit in that it’s a little quieter, there’s more room for thought. This gave me more space to breathe, room to think about my work but not be surrounded by it all day.”

The New Jersey Performing Arts Center is located at 1 Center St., Newark. Tickets are $59-$69. To purchase, contact NJPAC at 888-466-5722 or visit NJPAC.org/dance.

Photo Courtesy of Allison Armefield Photography
South Orange resident Jessica Sgambelluri will dance the crucifixus solo in “Missa Brevis” at NJPAC.