Sarah Stackhouse, star interpreter of José Limón, dies at 87
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Sarah Stackhouse, star interpreter of José Limón, dies at 87
Sarah Stackhouse performing in the late 1960s. Stackhouse, a star dancer in the Limón Dance Company who became a sought-after teacher and stager of José Limón’s choreography around the world, died on Jan. 7 at her home in New Paltz, N.Y. She was 87. (Fannie H. Melcer, via Limón Dance Foundation via The New York Times)

by Claudia Bauer

NEW YORK, NY.- Sarah Stackhouse, a star dancer in the Limón Dance Company who became a sought-after teacher and stager of José Limón’s choreography around the world, died Jan. 7 at her home in New Paltz, New York. She was 87.

The company announced the death. Her friend Diana Byer, the founder and former artistic director of New York Theater Ballet, said the cause was salivary cancer.

Limón was already one of the 20th century’s most influential choreographers when Stackhouse joined his company in 1958. Her virtuosic dance technique, natural charisma and compelling acting perfectly suited his flowing movement style and abstract narrative works, which are still performed by his company and many others around the world.

The role of Desdemona in Limón’s most famous work, “The Moor’s Pavane,” based on William Shakespeare’s “Othello,” showcased her gifts.

“She stepped onstage, and it was so free,” Byer said in a phone interview. “It wasn’t Sarah dancing the role; she was the role.”

Her partner in that work and many others was a fellow company member, Louis Falco.

“They were one of those fabulous partnerships that come up rarely,” Byer said.

After leaving the company in 1969, Stackhouse performed with the ensemble Louis Falco and a Company of Featured Dancers as well as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She was a founding member of the American Dance Theater at Lincoln Center. But her connection with Limón and his company endured for the rest of her life: She was his teaching assistant at the Juilliard School until his death in 1972, performed in company reunions and staged his works internationally.

Stackhouse’s charisma and artistry never left her. When she performed Limón’s solo “Chaconne” in 1982, Jennifer Dunning of The New York Times praised her “compelling lucidity and commitment.” Noting Stackhouse’s solo performance with the Kazuko Hirabayashi Dance Theater in 2008, Dunning wrote, “Her gifts have been forged in the fire of dance history.”

One critic even suggested that Stackhouse had improved on Limón’s work.

“Bach’s ‘Musical Offering’ has always seemed too long and academic,” Anna Kisselgoff wrote in a 1995 Times review of Limón’s “A Choreographic Offering,” set to the Bach piece. “Sarah Stackhouse’s new staging of this abbreviated suite works better.”

Sarah Leigh Stackhouse was born March 19, 1936, in Chicago, the younger of two daughters of Howard Leigh Stackhouse, a mechanical engineer for General Foods, and Helen Mary (Quhne) Stackhouse, a teacher who also managed the household. Sarah was in elementary school when she took her first dance classes, at the Battle Creek School of Dancing. After the family relocated to Scarsdale, New York, she enrolled in the Steffi Nossen School of Dance and graduated from Scarsdale High School in 1954.

It was at the Nossen school that Stackhouse came into direct contact with the first generation of modern dance innovators. Nossen admired the work of pioneering choreographers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. In the first decades of the 20th century, they blended ballet traditions with influences from India, Asia, Africa and Indigenous cultures that were rarely seen on professional stages in America at the time. As a result, Stackhouse’s early training was unusually eclectic.

She encountered Limón at the American Dance Festival, a six-week summer workshop then held at Connecticut College in New London. (Since 1948, it has been based at Duke University in North Carolina.) That summer, she also took classes from modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in dance from the University of Wisconsin in 1954, Stackhouse moved to New York City, where she found work as a dance teacher for the New York Police Athletic League. She also took modern dance classes with choreographer Merce Cunningham and ballet instruction with British luminaries Antony Tudor and Margaret Craske. And before joining the Limón company in 1958, she studied Afro-modern dance — a fusion of African, Cuban and modern movement — with Syvilla Fort, whose students also included Marlon Brando, James Dean and Eartha Kitt.

Limón, who had founded his troupe with choreographer Doris Humphrey, prized Stackhouse’s versatility and expressive stage presence.

In 1968 at a party held by Carla Maxwell, her fellow principal dancer in the Limón company, Stackhouse met her future husband, Leonardo Seeber, a research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. The next year, Stackhouse left the Limón company, and the couple embarked on an itinerant life that took them to Seeber’s family vineyard near Rome and to Pakistan, where their son, Roel Seeber, was born.

Stackhouse is survived by her husband, who goes by Nano, and their son, also a professional dancer, as well as her sister and a grandson.

Throughout the family’s time abroad, Stackhouse traveled to New York to continue teaching, staging and performing. On their permanent return in 1977, she joined the faculty at the Conservatory of Dance at Purchase College, part of the State University of New York. Her career eventually made her a dance ambassador of sorts, taking her to Italy, China, South America and India. She served as an American cultural specialist for the Cultural Programs Division of the State Department. She also lectured and wrote about dance, contributing essays to numerous books, and staged Limón’s works for New York Theater Ballet until late 2022.

Byer remembered Stackhouse as a kind but no-nonsense mentor.

“She was generous, but she was demanding,” Byer said. “She expected you to meet her expectations.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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