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DANCE REVIEW

Stretch the imagination

Ririe-Woodbury's Alwin Nikolais retrospective conserves American classical resources in an enlightening, pleasurable manner.

October 21, 2003|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

Ten years after the death of multimedia dance wizard Alwin Nikolais, the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Co. of Salt Lake City is touring a Nikolais retrospective that makes his mastery of choreography, electronic accompaniment, and costume and lighting design nearly as seductive as when his company made regular appearances on local stages.

Staged by former Nikolais dancer Alberto del Saz and the choreographer's longtime collaborator, Murray Louis, the seven-part program at Cal State L.A. on Saturday included works that Nikolais created in the 1950s (shortly after Shirley Ririe and Joan Woodbury studied with him) and the 1980s, when his influence (particularly on French dance-theater) was at its height.

Two early Nikolais pieces on the program used stretch fabric as a costuming ploy either to turn the dancers into abstract, protean body-sculptures (the duet "Noumenon Mobilus" from 1953) or to restrict and heighten their movement options (the hopping, swiveling quartet "Lythic" from 1956).

With "Tensile Involvement" (1955), however, Nikolais used stretch fabric architecturally -- as a way to continually redefine the stage space and form new corridors for dancing.

This full-company showpiece may have looked a mite cramped, if not tangled, on the Luckman stage, but seeing the dancers weave enormous hanging elastic strips into webs, cat's cradles and impromptu harnesses inspired the kind of childlike wonder that made Nikolais' name a watchword for whimsical modern dance abstraction.

By the 1980s, he was so identified with special effects that he would sometimes surprise his audiences with forays into low-tech social satire ("Blank on Blank" from 1987) or a suite of playful, jazzy dances based on a series of movement conditions or tasks ("Mechanical Organ" from 1980).

If the 10 Ririe-Woodbury dancers became obliterated by what seemed an arbitrary barrage of projections and other lighting shifts -- including sudden plunges into silhouette -- in the finale from "Liturgies" (1983), the solos and duets in "Mechanical Organ" allowed them to shine individually. Nikolais' technique focused on intricate muscular isolations and other small motions executed with the utmost clarity -- challenges met with great ease Saturday by such paragons as Juan Carlos Claudio, Melissa McDonald and Brandin Scott Steffensen.

The big rediscovery of the evening turned out to be "Crucible" (1985), which concealed its cast behind a low mirrored panel stretching across the stage. When parts of the dancers -- fingers, feet, eventually their upper bodies -- emerged into intense shafts of colored light, the mirror helped the choreography conjure up a mysterious, panoramic, three-dimensional kaleidoscope.

Just when you thought no additional variations were possible, Nikolais introduced projected letters that transformed the cast into moving glyphs, or cross-hatchings that made them resemble engravings, or points of light that let you see each dancer as a gleaming, star-spangled galaxy.

There was nothing like it 18 years ago, and there's nothing like it now: a distinctive movement technique set in a wondrous technological environment. Danced with dedication and stylistic surety, the Ririe-Woodbury project (reportedly scheduled to restage more Nikolais in the future) conserves important American cultural resources in a way as pleasurable as it is enlightening.

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