Ralph Lemon is a seeker, a modern-day choreographic contemplative who culls kernels of artistic truth through movement, writing, and directing. Born and raised in Minneapolis, he graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1975, and was part of the Nancy Hauser Company before cofounding Mixed Blood Theater Company in 1976. He moved to New York in the late 1970s and, after a stint with Meredith Monk (whom he first saw perform at the Walker Art Center), formed his eponymous company in 1985. Lemon quickly gained attention for his collaborative acumen and singular facility for expression within the vacillating fiats of postmodern choreography in New York at that time. The core of his celebrated style of the late 1980s and early 1990s seemed organically rooted in the body but could just as easily flow seamlessly into enigmatic austerity. Having embraced, in such works as Boundary Water (1984) and Killing Tulips (1993), both cerebral classicism and romantic rumination, Lemon’s choreographic ambitions began to outgrow the constraints of formulaic formality: “When you start with the same dancers, you often end up making the same dance. Yes, there’s a refinement… . But I began to question the relevance of a private language that no one outside my company understood.” At what seemed to be the height of his career, he decided to dissolve his company in 1995, after ten years of internationally acclaimed work, and to look beyond the familiarity of New York and the creative process as he knew it.
Since 1995, Lemon and a handpicked roster of international collaborators have been on a ten-year odyssey of diasporic discovery, a quest for the pieces of dance and the linkages to the past (and present) needed to complete a whole. The Geography Trilogy—a profound examination of Lemon’s own history—is a remarkable inquiry into the social gravities of race and identity at the turn of the twenty-first century. Lemon’s ambitious vision for the movement vocabulary of the Trilogy has relied on the ebb and flow of many social tide pools—a language that swirls between notions of modern and traditional, East and West, light and dark, formal and free-form. His direction and choreography, equal parts art and anthropology, illuminate the clash and charm of cultural juxtapositions while striving to remain respectful of the considerable significance of dance traditions in distinct civic frameworks.
Presented by the Walker in November 1997, Geography: Africa/Race (The Geography Trilogy: Part 1) was performed by nine male dancers and musicians against artist Nari Ward’s backdrop of shimmering walls of bottles and mattresses. The work is distinctly African yet unmistakably American, bringing to the surface rich metaphors of personal discovery formed out of ancestral exploration. As race was the root of Part 1, spirituality was the seed of Part 2, Tree. Following his sojourn and extensive research in Asia, Lemon again sought the spark of cultural collision in a piece that linked disparate customs and interlaced dances such as the Odissi of India with postmodern improvisation. Tree is an amalgam of movement, languages, folk songs, and incongruous images refracted through Lemon’s vision: “Here was this quiet little man from a village in South China who in some part of his body, spirit, soul, or culture knew Robert Johnson and knew the Mississippi Delta… . It summed up this work in a way I could never have devised.”
The Walker has assisted Lemon in realizing the conclusion of the Trilogy through commissioning support, two developmental residencies, and financially supporting How can you stay in the house all day and not go anywhere? (2004), the Web-based companion piece to the performance work. For Part 3, Come home Charley Patton, Lemon returned to rural America to reach further into the depth of a shared personal history. The work, which features the core Trilogy collaborators, includes his research into socially charged sites significant to the Civil Rights movement, lynchings (in both the South and the North), the roots of Mississippi Delta blues, and ideas drawn from the likes of Bruce Nauman and James Baldwin. Throughout his long involvement with the Walker, Lemon’s craft, curiosity, and ebullient personality have touched many through myriad workshops, performances, residency activities, and collaborations.
- Attracted to the advantages of other forms of expression, Lemon has made work for and with some of the foremost creators of our time, including filmmaker and visual artist Isaac Julien, Batsheva Dance Company, Bebe Miller, the Lyon Opera Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet, John Cale, Rhys Chatham, and Frank Zappa, among many others.
- Quoted in Christopher Reardon, “Pilgrim’s Progress,” Dance Magazine, September 2000, 65.
- Collaborators on the Trilogy have included artist Nari Ward (set designer); dramaturge Katherine Profeta; dancers Djédjé Djédjé Gervais, David Thomson, Okwui Okpokwasili, and Miko Doi Smith; poet Tracie Morris; and composers and musicians James Lo, Francisco Lopez, and Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky).
- Renowned Delta blues guitarist (1911–1938).
- Quoted in Reardon, “Pilgrim’s Progress,” 66.
Doug Benidt, “Ralph Lemon,” from Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections (New York: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2005), 338.