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Multimedia master

October 16, 2003|Donna Perlmutter | Special to The Times

Now you see it, now you don't. Magic. That's how Alwin Nikolais, choreographer and master illusionist, made his mark on the world. And just because he's no longer around is no reason to let that mark disappear, his champions say.

Indeed, even if the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company of Salt Lake City were not touring a program of Nikolais works to commemorate the 10th anniversary of his death, that creative signature would be widely discernible -- in stage shows, TV commercials, animation and the work of many other choreographers.

In Nikolais' world, human figures, painted or camouflaged, can morph into sleekly mobile thingamajigs, interdigitating with sets, poles and all manner of props.

The aesthetic that guided this father of multimedia, who was born in 1910, bubbled to the surface early in his career when Nikolais famously placed himself "against emotion and for motion," seeking to reduce all he surveyed to an anonymous, genderless state and to exalt the abstract as an end in itself.

"The minute we try to spell out a category," he said some years later, "we destroy the creative Rorschach in the viewer's eye. What ideally happens in any arts endeavor is an intermingling of imagination between the artist and the viewer. A kind of love affair."

Nikolais' idea of a love affair found little concurrence with the dance public's when he began his career in the late '40s. The scene setters then, Martha Graham and Antony Tudor, were busy glorifying Freud. Audiences became entranced by narrative-driven works that plumbed their characters' psychological depths, leaving behind fairy tales and frivolity.

Enter Nikolais to spark a counterrevolution. He reveled in plotless abstraction, as George Balanchine did, celebrating the art of trompe l'oeil by way of motion, sound and light.

Over the years, the awards poured in: two Guggenheims, a Kennedy Center honor and many more for this innovator who manipulated puppets, wrote electronic music, devised technology -- who, in short, made his whole enterprise dance into view.

But he did it with wit and whimsy. "Blank on Blank," a 1987 work to be presented on the Nikolais program Saturday at Cal State Los Angeles' Luckman Theatre, plays with the expression "white on white" (blanc being the French word for "white"). Describing the piece, Nikolais said it was about "nebbishes, people who can't make commitments, people without vitality, nonentities." He therefore removed all of his usual elements. And explained: "To those who harangue me for my extravagant use of light, color and sound, I give what they clamor for. White on white. Nothing with nothing."

Something with something, on the other hand, can be found in a work like "Gallery" from 1978, which suggests the prewar German Expressionism of Kurt Jooss and its macabre atmosphere of mini-robots acting out the power struggles of a corrupt society. The dance-maker was too aware of the world to shut it out.

Whether the Nikolais legacy, or any choreographer's, can endure beyond the creator's death is a much-debated subject. Unlike music, literature and fine art, dance is ephemeral. Luckily, there are keeper-of-the-flame institutions like Ririe-Woodbury, long dedicated to and inspired by Nikolais through the many summer sessions he spent with company founders Joan Woodbury and Shirley Ririe in Salt Lake City, where they were both professors of modern dance at the University of Utah.

Then there is Murray Louis, Nikolais' artistic and life partner. Like other duos -- Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, Merce Cunningham and John Cage -- Nik and Murray were a creative team.

"And I'm still here," the 78-year-old, energetic-sounding Louis says from Salt Lake City, where he has traveled from his home in New York. "As long as that's the case, the work will stay alive. Because I care for it as my own. We created the pieces together. What's important now is to empower the young dancers to perpetuate them."

The Connecticut Yankee (Nikolais) and the Brooklyn boy (Louis) linked up at New York's Henry Street Playhouse in 1949, when Louis not only became a Nikolais student but also began developing his own company. Over the years, "we split the job," says Louis, "each taking up what the other disliked.

"I never had an ego about what I did, because Nik towered over everybody. His range was vast. He was unique and brilliant and magnetic. I took great comfort under his wing. I guess we all felt that his art was so big it would rub off on us. On another level, he was a one-man band. I saw the results and realized this was the way to live my life. Besides, he was a great cook!"

Louis goes on to explain what Nikolais often warned against: reducing the work to "paltry personal problems." He wanted "to keep the ego out" and instead pursue the individuality of each artist's creative efforts.

Woodbury too -- whose role involves providing both physical and artistic resources -- sees Nikolais as a giant.

"He thought in macrocosms," she says. "In his mind, the individual was part of the universe.

" 'Transcend yourself,' he used to say."

Woodbury, who first studied with Nikolais in 1952, credits her career to him, saying: "He sparked a belief I couldn't have had without him. And now this is my chance to give back to him. I feel like Carry Nation."

As for the future of the Nikolais/Louis Foundation, co-artistic director Alberto "Tito" del Saz, the two dance-makers' handpicked successor, is already hard at work.

Louis can't resist quipping: "I will not let my heirs take over. Imagine putting my sister in charge!"


'Alwin Nikolais -- A Celebration Tour'

Where: Luckman Theatre, Cal State L.A., 5151 University Drive

When: Saturday, 8 p.m.

Price: $35-$45

Info: (323) 343-6600

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