February 16, 2016
The Alwin Nikolais Celebration at the Joyce Theater gave us the opportunity to see his unique and influential oeuvre in the best possible way: on the stage. Best known for his total artworks combining choreography, lighting, costuming and sound, Nikolais created visual feasts that continually challenge our perceptions, often with a good dose of humor. Under the artistic direction of Alberto del Saz, a former soloist with Nikolais Dance Theatre, and Murray Louis, Nikolais’ longtime partner and collaborator (who passed away last week), the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company performed meticulous restagings some of Nikolais’ most theatrical and popular works.
In Tensile Involvement (1955), the dancers inhabit the entire stage space by pulling elasticize ribbons attached to the rafters across the stage, creating geometric patterns that include their bodies as extensions of the designs. They run, hop, and manipulate their props, sometimes even holding the ribbons between their toes while lying on their backs, all to a peppy electronic score that conjures a futuristic techno age, composed by Nikolai himself (he did it all!). In one of many memorable moments, dancers create a rectangular frame around their bodies with the ribbons, then tilt the whole shape onto one foot, then the other, in unison: each dancer becoming a classic Vitruvian man, symmetrically contained within the frame, but also playfully off-kilter.
One revelation of the evening was the wit and artistry of the dancers, which belies the oft-heard critique of Nikolais’ work as dehumanizing. On the contrary: in Mechanical Organ (1980), we saw couples back to back sitting on benches, maneuvering in, on, and around them, often relating to each other and us, dancing to a charming ragtime composition. Architectural groupings, a male duet and an evocative female solo conveyed humanity through the movement – and the ending recalled the minimalist dances of Laura Dean, a vigorous community of dancers where in spite of the ensemble aesthetic, we see every dancer shine.
It is true that in some of the works, human form is manipulated and subsumed into startling imagery through theatrical means, yet we never lose sight of the fact that people are creating these images, making the visual effects that much more extraordinary. In the second half of the program, Gallery (1978) was an extended experiment in the use of lighting, masks and props against a black backdrop to create an eerie circus world. Neon green heads rise up from behind a small ledge or are held aloft on sticks, becoming targets at a carnival shooting gallery; colorful neon swirls on disks are rolled along the floor creating a line of moving vehicles that recalled the modern-day Hoverboard.
But it was in Crucible (1985), the opening work, that Nikolais’ genius was unequivocally and succinctly stated: emerging from behind a mirrored platform, the dancers’ half-naked bodies, dressed by the colorful lighting, morphed into a stunning array of mirror images, evoking everything from sea anemone to Loch Ness monsters in hot pursuit: a Rorschach test that was playful, at times strange, and above all an unparalleled ‘free play of the imagination.’
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Nicole Duffy Robertson