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Nikolais Dance Theater

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I attended the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company's performance at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Union Theater on Friday night. The performance consisted of four pieces by the late-Alwin Nikolais and was billed under the rubric of 'Nikolais Dance Theater'.

The Union Theater seats 1,300 and I would say the theater was about two-thirds to three-quarters full.

Here are my thoughts on the four pieces presented:

Noumenon (1953)

This "dance" for three seemed to me to be like a repertory etude of the Nikolais 'total theater' style. Three dancers encased in a stretch fabric adopted different poses in unison while various atmospheric elements -- lighting, electronic music -- added to the unearthly effect.

As an intro to the Nikolais style/philosophy, I thought this work was interesting. But as a dance work, I thought it was not the kind of work that would ever bear repeated viewings. Since the three dancers don't really dance (they move like synchronized swimmers on land), there is nothing to be gained from seeing it again. Once you've seen it, you've seen it.

Mechanical Organ (1980)

This piece, which was more of a "pure dance" piece, was more to my liking. (And the music was the least oppressive of the four electronic scores accompanying the four dances.)

The dance consists of an opening full company section followed by a male duet, a female solo, a male quintet, a male/female duet and a closing full company section. The full company sections were terrific. In these sections, Nikolais showed he was adept at utilizing human bodies to create spatial effects without relying on the crutch of props or fabric. The final section, in particular, had some striking effects, including a sequence where the dancers threw themselves into motion like spinning tops.

Where I thought the dance faltered somewhat was with the quintet, the two duets and the solo. The choreography for these sections, while not entirely uninteresting, was less compelling than that in the large group sections. It was if Nikolais only had a facility for manipulating large groups of people on stage and was less adept at finding interesting things for dancers to do in smaller groups.

Tensile Involvement (1955)

This was a spectacular work. Of the four works on display, this was the only one that truly lived up to the promise of the Nikolais style/philosophy. The interaction of dancers, props (long strips of elastic?), lighting, scenery and music was perfect and I wouldn't change a thing. Also, the relative brevity was a plus.


Tent (1968)

I found this long (and I do mean long) work to be excruciatingly dull. Made in 1968, I'm sure it was all very mind-blowing to the pot-smoking audiences of the time. But since no one was passing a bong around in the Union Theater, I had to watch it straight and I can't say that the experience was a meaningful one.

While the Nikolais effects (i.e. the giant tent covering of the title) were out in full force, I found that they completely overwhelmed the dancers. Also, this work (in six sections) highlighted to a cruel degree that Nikolas did not have enough choreographic ideas to sustain a long work like this. At a certain point, it became very apparent that he was a man of limited choregraphic means.

Overall, I had mixed feelings about the dance theater of Alwin Nikolais. On the plus side, I thought that Nikolais pulled off some astonishing effects. Also, seeing his works made me realize that he was a direct precursor to Cirque du Soleil, Pilobolus and even to the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense.

On the down side, I thought that Nikolais was only modestly endowed as a choreographer and too often his experiments in "total theater" were out-of-balance precisely because the choreographic content did not always live up to the special effects content. In addition, the atonal musical scores gave me a headache by the end of the evening.

Still, the Ririe-Woodbury company performed the hell out of these works and they should be commended for preserving a repertory that would otherwise be lost.

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