Seven beautiful bodies stretch themselves on a black floor. Their elegant lines radiate like petals.
“Too fast ... Sustain it ... More floating,” modern dance master Murray Louis barks at the troupe. They’ve been working on the male duet for 40 minutes now, almost an hour past rehearsal schedule. The men have figured out where to place their bodies for fluid perfection; it’s time for the dress rehearsal.
For Louis, there’s a special connection to the pieces he’s overseeing. Alwin Nikolais had a career in theater lasting more than 50 years until his death in 1993. During this time, he used his talents as a composer, designer and choreographer to revolutionize the stage. When Nikolais began the Nikolais Dance Theater in the middle of the last century, he chose Louis to be his soloist and the actualization of his abstract philosophy.
Nikolais Dance Theater appeared throughout Europe, South America and the Far East. Because of his unique choreography, Nikolais was showing the world a new approach to dance theater. To him, dance was “the act of motion which, left on its own merits, becomes the message as well as the medium.”
Nikolais’ message was well received by Joan Woodbury and Shirley Ririe who, at different times, were both students of the Nikolais school. So when Louis called the ladies in June 2002 to ask for collaboration on the Nikolais Celebration Tour, Ririe and Woodbury were very enthusiastic.
According to Ririe-Woodbury publicists, this will be the first time in U.S. history when an existing dance company will perform a collection from a master in order to preserve his legacy. The dance company will perform this tribute during its landmark 40th anniversary. Murray Louis, Alberto del Saz and Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company have teamed up to provide a showcase of Nikolais’ unique talent, with excerpts of works created between 1953 and 1985.
The Alwin Nikolais Celebration Tour consists of seven dance segments incorporated into one program. The first segment, “The Crucible,” is a celebration of light and pattern, projected onto the dancers. Four projectors and overhead blue and red lights create the effect of turning bodies into canvases. The visuals are accompanied by electronic synthesizer music, which adds to the surreal experience. The theme of a crucible is also pregnant with meaning.
“It is a vast cauldron out of which man was created—the whole body. Finally, at the very end, you see the identity of each person and then they disappear,” explains Louis.
Where “Crucible” is thought provoking, “Lyric” is more mysterious. “It’s magical ... almost like a religious ceremony. Prepared piano [altered piano tones] adds a curious melodic pitch,” says Louis.
“Lythic” concentrates on the sculpture itself. Four stone figures, carved in a mythical age, perform a mystic ceremony. “Noumenon Mobilus” is similar to “Lythic” in that the sculptures do the dancing. One forgets that there are actually dancers in those stretchy metallic sacks.
Another segment, “Blank on Blank,” depicts a soulless society set against the backdrop of the Wall Street Stock Exchange. “It’s like society today, emotionless, a colorless society. Everything is of equal value and nothing matters,” says Louis.
There is also “Finale From Liturgies”, which was originally a final act from a larger piece called “Totem.” It is based on faith and passion, with a “running up to heaven” feel to it.
The six-part “Mechanical Organ” is the longest of the seven segments and is a suite of dances to the theme of gatherings and relations. It’s a cocktail party of very talented people.
The final act, “Tensile Involvement,” focuses on line, space and the human body. In essence, it’s a life-size Cat’s Cradle game. As with the other acts, this one features the abstract beauty of the body and, more specifically, the dancer.
Segment to segment, the Alwin Nikolais Celebration is a surprise and a delight. The dancers’ bodies may radiate like petals, but it takes choreography from Louis and Nikolais to make that flower bloom. A rose by any other name would be Alwin Nikolais.