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Nikolais Dance Theatre

'Crucible,' 'Lythic', ' Blank on Blank,' ' 'Liturgies 'Finale,' 'Noumenon Mobilus,' ' Mechanical Organ,' ' Tensile Involvement'

by Toba Singer

October 24, 2003 -- Memorial Auditorium, Stanford, CA

There is a medium-sized list of choreographic works that you should see if you want to make friends with modern dance. Of those that played a pioneer role in the establishment of the art form that continues to inspire audiences today are the works of Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Alwin Nikolais in collaboration with Murray Louis. The Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company’s Nikolais Dance Theatre brings the genuine Nikolais-Louis article to its audiences. There is nothing of the no-commitment, audience-impervious, self-conscious, navel-gazing stuff that shrieks “experimental,” and yet puts you right to beddy-bye. Every moment of the Murray Louis-Alwin Nikolais choreography is experimental and committed. It draws the audience into a support system for a completely mesmerizing integration of ingenious lighting, costuming and manipulation of dancer bodies into currents of motion that you didn’t know could really happen quite like that.

Seven pieces were on the program, most of them short and punchy. The first, “Crucible,” opens with what look like a horizontal string of glowing red dots that expand in all directions against the black backdrop. We eventually see that these are actually hands, not dots, and that they have arms that look like legs or swelling hieroglyphics, or maybe a phosphorescent reef that’s undulating to music that up until now Generation X musicians perhaps flattered themselves they had invented. It’s called “Techno” nowadays, but the choreographer composed these electronic scores before many of Generation X’s parents were born, and they comprise a brilliant homage to the Spike Jones brand of musical humor. Arms “clink” to the precision-plated chiming of 1950s department store elevator bells. “Your floor, sir,” in this case is not a floor, so much as a man-made body of water that reflects the upper bodies of the dancers who stand at waist height behind the elevated stage, so that the tops of their bodies are reflected in the “pool” in front of them to look like the bottoms of their bodies. Dancers are not so much costumed as they are lit in inflections of designs and colors, as is the set, all of it syncopated with the music. The center of the body is the crucible, the dispatch point for all that happens onstage. This is the place where gyrokinetics meets dance meets architecture, and it all makes for a very fine how-do-you-do!

“’Lythic’ from Prism ” is the second piece. Four female dancers appear in silhouette, in Nefertiti-like profile, and begin a series of jumps from relevé, hands hidden and grasped behind them. The subset of two projected crossed ovals of yellow and beige forms a minaret as a backdrop.   As the lights come up we see that the women are costumed in blue and gold spandex that girds a sequence of stretchy, then inflated poses, punctuated by small impulse isolations.

Next up is “Blank on Blank,” a work that captures how an East Coast cityscape shapes the inscapes of random city dwellers. It opens with two couples dressed in white, the women with modified cloche or sailor hats, and sailor dresses derivative of the early 1920s. Thundering electronic music is interrupted by the occasional gunshot or burst of machine gun fire, or something we hardly ever normally notice is similar: jackhammering. More dancers arrive and the ensemble plays a little game of “Statue,” where they run, run, run, and come to a halt in a pose. And then, as an ensemble, they sink into the floor. Then, as something electronic marks time, one dancer lifts another, and her lift is the armature for a cloche-like swinging of her body in space. There is a gentle, droll humor in the dancers stopping their drive to arrive in order to suddenly incline backs forward in profile, turn heads all at once on a diagonal, focus eyes upward and listen…two, three, four…, hearing nothing when the cacophony of street sounds suddenly stops! You think of Cage, Mobius, the first half of the last century’s revolution in design, music and dance. The white costumes are very much a blank slate, open to the inspirations of the artists of the period that the jerkily-executed two-step and the costumes suggest.

‘Finale’ from Liturgies takes the audience to a place far from the city, where dancers in nude leotards seem, chameleon-like, to take on the colors of the jungle. Dancers as chameleons resonates as an image, and as jungle bird primary colors overtake the nude leotards and undulating arms conjoin the dancers in a circle, we have already forgotten the implacable stony architecture in the set of the last piece because in this one, trees seem to be dancing, a prelude to the ensemble breaking out into flights of color and motion.

“Noumenon Mobilus” opens with two dancers sheathed in a white latex tube shaped into a square by the knees of the seated dancers being parted, feet resting flat on the floor. Two enlarged illustrations of atoms are projected on the screen behind the dancers to suggest that this is the Atomic Age. The seated wedges move into a new pose akin to the shape of the 1950s Butterfly Chair. This piece makes it clear, if it wasn’t before, that the dancers constitute a medium for the bombardment of light, sound and set in sequenced energy transfers. This is actually accomplished without the literalness of contact improvisation, and ends when the dancers use their arms to shape the latex into drapes that reveal their human shapes, as they are lit in the final moments of the piece in immortalizing bronze.

“Mechanical Organ” seemed to be the favorite of the audience. It is a long, complex piece divided into sets that begin with couples seated side by side in clusters on seats that look like those in a bus or train depot. The music is ragtime, with clarinet solos that have the dancers “indicating” on each beat, as they dance on and off the benches. This ensemble set is followed by a series of duets and solos and then a full-cast finale. Somewhere ‘twixt the comings and goings, my notes fall off, as do I into gentle repose. The dancing is adept and well-executed, but at this point on the program, after having earlier traveled at a snail’s pace through Peninsula traffic for an hour, my ever-patient companion and I are agreeing that maybe this piece could have been edited, or, lacking the authority to do so, cut from the program.

“Tensile Involvement” is a clever piece built around a cat’s cradle rainbow of cloth streamers worked through the choreography into fascinating cross-hatchings and networks that produce solid geometric shapes, pogo sticks, and other stringed implements for putting us in a playful frame of mind as the program ends. It’s a physicist’s playground, and the Stanford audience takes notice and heartily applauds the work of this inventive choreographer who teases motion out of stasis and guilelessly marries art with science.

Edited by Holly Messit

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