“Nikolais was a leader. He brought one to the doors of their imagination, to find their own way. Where this process led to was not his concern, but to open their imagination was...” —Murray Louis---
This quote and a biographical short set the stage for an explosive evening of dance by the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. It was pure brilliance. The dance legend Alwin Nikolais was before his time regarding usage of visuals, props, costumes and in incorporating a new language in to dance. He was challenging, to say the least, to both his dancers and his audience. To this, he told dancers to drop their psychological concepts of the art and imagine themselves as purely moving objects through space. To approach dance as an audience member in the same way—dropping one’s preconceived notions—and just enjoy the performance was what Thursday evening was all about.
The program began with “Tensile Involvement,” which had eight dancers moving white webbing hung from the opposite upper corner of the stage. With flashing lights, the effect was a technicolor spiderweb serving as the backdrop for soloists (dressed like psychedelic Ronold McDonalds) dancing in and out of time with the industrial, erratic soundtrack. It was shocking and awesome, despite how desensitized we are in 2011—one can only imagine how the 1955 premiere wowed the audience.
The second Utah premiere, “Temple,” had three clusters of three dancers spread evenly about the stage. Each trio had two dancers on a bench with the third, behind and above, on a stool. Back-dropped by an abstract set of owl eyes, the movements alluded simultaneously to the grace of flight as well as the crunchiness of machines and moving gears. The latter fit well with the soundtrack. Nikolais’ choreography is a statement of subtlety by showing playfulness in minor details, like the dancers’ fingers. It was also a demonstration of fluidity within confinement—each trio rarely strayed from their stations.
Four excerpts from “Imago: The City Curious” cajoled something unusual for modern dance (or performance art in general): laughter. Nikolais had the wherewithal to make the art of movement accessible to all—grown or small. This piece, if not the others, exhibited the magic of dance. Abstract imagery (like a Dr. Seuss book) and slapstick buffoonery juxtaposed technically demanding solos in a well-rounded piece.
“Noumenon Mobilus” was a look into the darker, mysterious side of the legend’s repertoire. Three dancers manipulated silver spandex outfits so that one could only suppose there was a human inside. The costumes’ sheen of reflected light created an excellent effect to a piece that seemed to evoke a primordial amoeba as well as a certain sense of mathematics. The piece ended with each dancer crossing their arms over their chest, pulling the costumes tightly over their face to finally expose the human form.
And as the program ended with “Kaleidoscope Suite,” (pictured above) I was baffled and mesmerized in all the right ways. The Alwin Nicolais Centennial certainly opens up one’s imagination. It is a must see.
Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company: Alwin Nikolais Centennial @ Rose Wagner Center, 138 W. Broadway, 801-355-2787, April 21-23, 7:30 p.m., Saturday matinee 2 p.m., $30. RirieWoodbury.com, ArtTix.org