Bringing dance history to life

Members of Dance NOW! Miami in Doris Humphrey’s “Ritmo Jondo”
Members of Dance NOW! Miami in Doris Humphrey’s “Ritmo Jondo”

Chorographer and educator Daniel Lewis has taken only two weeks’ vacation since he retired as Dean of the Dance Department at New World School of the Arts five years ago. “Even then, I worked,” jokes Lewis, 73.

In addition to traveling nationally and internationally to give lectures, choreograph and create new work, the indefatigable Lewis has still found time to make a little Miami dance history. On Friday, Dance NOW! Miami debuts Lewis’ staging of American dance icon Doris Humphrey’s classic work “Ritmo Jondo.”

Though not nearly as well known as her contemporary Martha Graham, Humphrey was one of the founding artists of modern dance. Influenced by flamenco and Spanish rhythms set to music by Spanish composer Carlos Suriñach, Humphrey created the 20-minute “Ritmo Jondo” in 1953 for four men and four women in the José Limón Dance Company, where she was artistic director. In 1964, Limón restaged the ballet, and Lewis, a student at Julliard who would go on to become a member of Limón’s troupe, was selected to perform one of the male roles.

Fast forward 52 years and Lewis has brought the piece alive for Miami audiences. (He will also introduce the program, which includes two works by Dance NOW! directors Hannah Baumgarten and Diego Salterini.) Artburst writer Mia Leonin spoke to Lewis about the challenges and joys of restaging this iconic piece.

Q: What is special about “Ritmo Jondo”?

It’s great for Miami because of the flamenco influence and the Spanish rhythms, although it’s clearly modern dance. The dance is composed of three sections: First the men, then the women, and finally, the men encountering the women. Thematically, it’s very traditional. Men hunted, women mourned. It’s not my way of thinking about men and women, but I loved learning this dance because the rhythms were so magical. The movements for the male dancers are strong jumps and heavy duty rhythms in the feet.

What made “Ritmo Jondo” so special for me was that in 1965 we toured it throughout the New York City and New Jersey public school system, and I got to perform it hundreds of times. It’s rare in dance to have the opportunity to perform something so many times it becomes a part of you.

Q: What’s unique about the choreography?

The first movement isn’t done on any counts, so the men have to really feel each other. It’s just four men relating to each other as men so you get to find your own rhythms. I also like its thematic idea. Very traditional.

Q: What has it been like staging this ballet after so many years?

One of the joys of Limón and Humphrey’s work is that it’s not so codified. You’re doing the same steps, but you have freedom in directing. It’s like seeing many Shakespearean monologues but each with its own flair.

Q: What adjustments have you made for this staging of “Ritmo Jondo”?

For this version, I didn’t adjust much on the women at all. The dancers got the essence of the movement almost immediately. It is very slow and lamenting. Bodies, abilities and training have changed over the years. Today the male dancers are more technically proficient than the guys in 1953. It’s a different world now — they have more technique and they have to transfer that to the drama of the piece. Back in the day, the drama and the technique were the same. Now you have to find that balance where you keep the essence of the work. When you’re staging the ballet you want the dancers to feel like they own the movement, that they are not just performing someone else’s movement. I make changes frequently so the dancers feel that sense of ownership.

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If you go:

What: ‘Ritmo Jondo’ by Dance NOW! Miami

When: 8:30 p.m. Friday

Where: The Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach,

Info: $35 general, $15 students and seniors (at box office only), or $50 VIP; 800-211-1414 or ticketmundo.com; info at dancenowmiami.org.