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Steps in the Right Direction

New collections of works by the late dance master Alwin Nikolais and traditional African and European fare both entertain and inform.

December 15, 1996|Lewis Segal | Lewis Segal is The Times' dance critic

Few video stores carry dance titles, and even most mail-order catalogs list little beyond ballet. So it can be hard to learn about the multivolume projects released by specialists, and sometimes by dance companies, that offer a more comprehensive and deeper view of the art.

For example, important new video collections focus on modern dance master Alwin Nikolais (who died in 1993 at age 80) and traditional dance in Europe and Africa.

The five-cassette Nikolais collection may be especially noteworthy, since it is narrated, directed and edited by his companion and former leading dancer, choreographer Murray Louis. Nobody knows the unique Nikolais aesthetic better.

Each VHS tape begins with the same two-minute introduction, in which Louis celebrates his mentor's versatility and innovation: "He evolved an abstract theater which gave equal importance to choreography, sound, lighting design and costumes, and thus gave birth to a new form called 'multimedia.' "

Indeed, the five tapes are identical in mission and overall effect, offering a kaleidoscopic sampling rather than a program of complete works. Although meticulous about duplicating Nikolais' original stage lighting, Louis has cut the longer pieces into their component sections for no evident purpose other than giving each tape the same balance between pure-dance showpieces and special-effects spectacle.

That decision is highly questionable, but the performances on the tapes serve Nikolais' stage magic with a very special refinement. Here, a capsule overview:


"The World of Alwin Nikolais," Program I: "Crucible," men's duet from "Mechanical Organ," "Mantis" from "Imago," "Cave" from "Tent," "Rooftops" from "Imago," Nikolais tributes and biography from the 1987 "Kennedy Center Honors," with "Tensile Involvement." 48 minutes.

Isolated limbs above a mirrored floor turn anatomy into fantasy ("Crucible"), while segmented, bamboo-like poles lengthen arms into tentacles ("Imago"). Finally, dancing bodies dissolve into pure light when Nikolais clothes them in slide projections ("Tent").

Program II: Opening dance from "Gallery," finale of "Mechanical Organ," "Boulevard" from "Imago," "Hoop" from "Totem," "Garden" from "Tent," "Noumenon," finale of "Totem" (revised). 40 minutes.

Under black light, dancers become giant puppets ("Gallery") or a shapeless mass when inside a cloth sack ("Noumenon"). However, they easily hold attention in common leotards ("Mechanical Organ") when Nikolais' movement impetus ricochets through their bodies in unexpected dance fireworks.

Program III: "Pond," opening dance from "Mechanical Organ," "Clothes" from "Kaleidoscope" (revised), quintet from "Mechanical Organ," first dance from "Gallery," bench duet from "Mechanical Organ," "Descent to Hell" from "Tent." 44 minutes.

Horizontal dancers scoot along on tiny wagons in an aquatic environment ("Pond"), with color effects so intense, the TV screen glows like stained glass. Striking but grim: faces shot to bits ("Gallery") and people swallowed up by canopies large and small ("Tent").

Program IV: Triple trio from "Gallery," jump dance from "Totem," "Kites" from "Imago," shadow opening from "Totem," "Celebrants" from "Totem," "Blank on Blank," water study from "Sanctum." 44 minutes.

Dancers float atop invisible platforms ("Gallery"), manipulate banners attached to their limbs ("Imago") and, encased in fabric loops, transform themselves into geological formations ("Sanctum"). However, Nikolais' subtle shadow effects ("Totem") just don't work on the small screen.

Program V: "Imago" suite, "Chrysalis" and "Artisan" from "Imago," "Effigy" from "Totem," "Reliquary" from "Totem," "Clique" from "Imago," "Masks" and "Clowns" from "Gallery," "Tensile Involvement." 41 minutes.

Scattershot editing initially makes Nikolais seem incoherent ("Imago" suite), but all the small-cast vehicles display the excellence of the company soloists in unusual contexts for virtuosity. The series ends in one more splurge of large-scale showmanship (a newly shot "Tensile Involvement").


* "The World of Alwin Nikolais," $50 each, $225 for the set, plus shipping, from the Nikolais/Louis Foundation for Dance, 611 Broadway, Suite 221-223, New York, NY 10012. (212) 420-0700.


Six years ago, a set of 30 folkloric videotapes and nine books appeared under the title "The JVC Video Anthology of World Music and Dance." The tapes and books, both academically indispensable and shockingly uneven, are now available individually--and two valuable new supplements have just been issued in VHS format: "Africa" (three videotapes, three booklets) and "Europe" (two videotapes, two booklets).

These and the earlier titles in the collection, produced by the Japanese media giant JVC in collaboration with Smithsonian/Folkways Recordings, are edited and packaged for reference and study. For starters, the individual performance segments are often drastically truncated to serve a purely educational function: as examples to learn from.

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