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MUSIC AND DANCE REVIEWS : Nikolais, Louis Works at Occidental

May 03, 1993|LEWIS SEGAL

It's easy to take genius for granted when it becomes your steady diet. For a long, long while, American modern dance invited that complacency by offering an unprecedented array of original visions.

No longer. That dream is definitely over and, in an era consecrated to the bottom line, many Golden Age choreographers are mounting retrospective seasons that both document and conserve their achievements.

Local audiences have already sampled the Taylor and Lewitzky retrospectives and, on Friday, Occidental College brought us one program from a current Alwin Nikolais/Murray Louis reconstruction project largely funded by Rutgers.

Three works from the 1970s provided reminders of how Nikolais and Louis created a new kind of holistic, non-psychological dance theater and how they reformulated dance technique to focus virtuosity on the interplay of isolated body parts.

In his whimsical "Personnae" (1971), Louis refined twitches and shivers to maximum sharpness, added exposed tests of balance and spectacular displays of spinal fluidity--but then undercut the prodigious difficulty of the technique by physical comedy: dancers pretending to ride a mass-transit bicycle or scratch a communal itch. The jaunty score by Free Life Communications helped sustain the illusion of the dance as mere throwaway improvisation.

Louis' "Porcelain Dialogues" (1974) found six dancers in white forming scuptural friezes that reflect the formal classicism of the Tchaikovsky accompaniment. When in motion, however, their pinpoint muscular isolations make the sense of lyricism explored here look nothing like ballet or anybody else's form of modern dance.

Nearly 20 years ago, Louis incorporated same-sex duets and the juxtaposition of several different dances (each a whole and complete expression of the music)--concepts that a younger generation of choreographers adopted and developed a decade later.

A compendium of blacklight effects that developed into a societal metaphor, Nikolais' "Gallery" (1979) relied on simulations of mechanical motion: conveyor-belt processions, rotations as if the dancers were attached to the outer edge of a revolving disc, figures rising as if on hoists, etc.

Beginning and ending with shooting-gallery imagery (including faces-as-targets), the piece featured a central section in which elaborate mask effects yielded to magical suspensions of gravity. Even here, however, as tiers of dancers floated in space, their painted and mocking smiles satirized forms of popular entertainment. That satire intensified during the piece's final moments when targets and faces shattered as if from gunshots.

A society that feeds on violence and danger in its entertainments may find those preoccupations increasingly prominent offstage. "Gallery" offered both an illustration and a warning.

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