writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

Decoding Nikolais—
A Conversation

"Nikolais Dance Theatre"
Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company
Stanford University Memorial Auditorium

(Presented by Stanford Lively Arts)
October 24, 2003

By Rita Felciano and Rachel Howard
copyright @2003 by Rita Felciano and Rachel Howard

Rather than write a review, Rita Felciano and Rachel Howard decided to test the limits of dance writing on the internet and have conversation following the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company's program of Alwin Nikolais works. The performance included Crucible (1985), "Lythic," from Prism (1956), Blank on Blank (1987), "Finale" from Liturgies, Noumenon Mobilus (1953), Mechanical Organ (1980), and Tensile Involvement (1955).

RITA: Let me ask you a question. Actually I have two: Why do you think it's important that this work be seen? And would you go back and see it again?

RACHEL: That brings up something I was going to ask you. Because one argument you could make for the importance of seeing this work is to gain a context for what is going on in modern dance now. And so I wanted to ask which choreographers out there now, if any, you felt could claim to be of a Nikolais "lineage," or influenced by his work. Maybe Momix?

RITA: Absolutely. But I respect Nikolais's work more than Momix’s. And of course, a couple of these pieces tonight had similarities to Pilobolus.

RACHEL: Right, yes. To me the Nikolais work is less commercial—and that would be an argument in favor of esteeming his work more.

RITA: Would you go back and see it again?

RACHEL: Yes. Would you?

RITA: I'm not sure I would. I think the inventiveness and originality of what he did is unquestionable. The guy had an absolutely authentic voice. Some of it I thought was technically and inventively more intriguing than it was emotionally involving. There is an innocence about it which is very appealing. But there is also a naivete and that might keep me from seeing the same program again.

RACHEL: I wouldn't need to see this program twice in the same week or in the same year. But having seen Crucible almost ten years ago, it was interesting to see it again.

RITA: Did you see it differently now?

RACHEL: I did, but a lot of that is because when I last saw it, I had not even begun writing about dance. And I see the quality of the movement so much differently now.

RITA: As long as you're talking about Crucible, it had a real trajectory, didn't it? And an emotional trajectory, from the . . .

RACHEL: The little wormy fingers rising . . .

RITA: And at the end you almost got the whole body. There was a real sense of here the piece was going which I thought was wonderful.

RACHEL: And quite an accomplishment considering that there's no narrative, and there's very little interaction between the individuals on the stage.

RITA: That’s true. There is no narrative, but the music was almost giving it a narrative, as if telling us how to react to what he wanted us to see.

Another thing that occurred to me during the concert was that we are conditioned to look at the individual as important in society. That's not what this was about. These dances were always about a larger unit. They had a mechanistic aspect about them, but I don't think it was meant in a negative way.

RACHEL: Do you think that some of the pieces were about humankind at all? The works seemed more representative of the entire cosmos than they were of human beings, in certain pieces.

RITA: The dancers were definitely part of something larger. Does that mean that their humanity was subjugated, is that what you mean?

RACHEL: I mean do the pieces really talk about what it is to be human, or are they more about our awe of the cosmos or of scientific workings?

RITA: Some of the works reminded me of (Fernand) Léger, who puts the human being into almost machine-like landscapes.

RACHEL: What did you think of the piece which to me was the most curious, Blank on Blank, which the program notes say is about a nihilistic society?

RITA: I didn't see it as a nihilistic society. In that piece I was struck by Nikolais’s desire to create almost photographic images. He even put the dancers into portraitures poses. There was also a sense of repetition, as if he were re-spooling the film.

RACHEL: Especially the phrase with the woman doing the one-handed cartwheel, and they all hit their tableaux. And that corresponded with a certain sound series that also came back. I thought that piece was so different because it was the only one in which the dancers were dressed like ordinary human beings, in actual clothes that people would wear.

RITA: Except there were also several dances in which the dancers looked almost nude.

RACHEL: Yes, so that they were supposed to look like people. But then they would hit a shape in silhouette that would suddenly make them look like aliens again.   In that next-to-final piece (Mechanical Organ), when they were wearing the nude dance belts and body stockings, they were very human.

RITA: Yes, they were but at the same time, again they were involved in those unison movements. That didn’t seem very human; they certainly were not very individual. And yet there was an innocent playfulness about that piece which I thought was very interesting.

RACHEL: Right. Like in the duet between the man and the woman which they danced on the stools (“Two Together”). There was clearly a courtship, a flirtation going on there.

RITA: I thought that was the most traditional modern dance piece on the program. I thought it worked very well.

RACHEL: What did you think of the dance with the four, they were described as "stone figures," with those wonderful costumes ("Lythic" from Prism), so that if they spread their legs there was fabric there, but if they pulled them together it collapsed?

RITA: I loved it. It started them in silhouettes. What I really liked is that the dancers looked as though they were standing on one point. They came down to such a narrow base.

RACHEL: And the dresses, when they spread them, were designed to accentuate the muscles of their two legs.

RITA: It was very imaginative.

RACHEL: Do you feel you can separate Nikolais the choreographer from Nikolais the costume designer, the sound score designer? Because all the elements were so equal, to me, that it's hard for me to speak of it as choreography.

RITA: I was struck with the imagistic quality. I think his visual sense, and I mean that in a painterly way, the way he used those backgrounds, those colors, I think that is where he was the strongest. In the first piece (Crucible) the light design was fabulous.

RACHEL: Red with neon spots projected on their bodies, and then stripes, and pure red.

RITA: They would turn around and the color would change.

The last piece on the program was Tensile Strength, the cat's cradle dance. It's clever, but would I want to see it again? I don't think so.

RACHEL: Do you mean you feel that you can understand everything you need to understand about that piece in one viewing?

RITA: That's what I mean.  And the other thing, I think, we have to say is that the dancers did a very good job. The program was beautifully rehearsed, excellent performances. And what is interesting is that the ensemble was very diverse, think about that big tall man and that stout woman who danced the courtship duet.

RACHEL: She was my favorite dancer throughout. She had such a dynamism to her movement.

RITA: In the piece in which the dancers were enclosed in the stretch fabric (Noumenon Mobilus), was it important for you to know that there were two people inside?

RACHEL: Yes. Part of what made watching the piece interesting was that every once in a while the illusion would break down, and you would see the humanness behind it. And I loved the low-tech quality of it. And seeing the illusion fall apart momentarily made it more compelling.

RITA: And in the end in that final pose, the close bodily outlines spelled it out the humanity inside.

RACHEL: So I have to ask you the question you asked me: Do you think this work needs to be seen, and why?

RITA: I think it needs to be seen because it is good. It also offers perspectives on what happened afterwards. I think what he did with lighting design is amazing, especially for the fifties. I'm very glad this company is performing this work. Even if I don't need to see these particular works again, I think I would like to see what else he has done.

RACHEL: It was especially intriguing that we were seeing dances purely from the fifties and the eighties, and nothing in the middle.

RITA: Do you have a favorite piece?

RACHEL: I think that Tensile Strength is just iconic. And so I think that's a good piece for anyone who cares about dance and wants to have a broad idea of dance history to see. It was the piece to me that looked most clearly of an age, and I feel I'm seeing a piece of dance history in it. The other piece I liked a lot, Mechanical Organ, was the piece I enjoyed the most.

RITA: There was a solo (“Doll with a Broken Head”) in that, I think was the only solo, which I really liked it a lot. Because the dancer was alone, yet she was not alone. She seemed to be in thrall of some force that was holding her up, pushing her away. There were forces working on her body, but you didn't see them.

RACHEL: I think Nikolais’s work is an interesting case, because unlike many modern choreographers' works, you don't have to be trained in a particular style to dance these works well. Many different companies could do them.

RITA: You read so much about his inventiveness. So I thought some of it would look dated, but it did not. That was a real surprise. How did you feel about these dancers doing all this mechanistic movement?

RACHEL: When it felt life affirming, celebrating the working of the universe I liked it very much. Blank on Blank though, was so cynical.

RITA: Oh, you thought it was cynical. Oh really? Why?

RACHEL: Did you notice for instance, on stage right at one moment when the woman lay on the floor and the man was above her in a plank position and started thrusting, having very mechanistic sex with her? I thought this is nihilistic.

RITA: That came pretty close to a narrative. The reaction of the women sitting on the bench was strange. I didn’t know if they were shielding them, yet they were embarrassed at the same time.

RACHEL: And at other moments, they were pointing and holding their hands over their mouths in shock.

RITA: It's true.

RACHEL: I thought there was a disintegration of human regard for one another in that piece. It was eerie, too, the way they did these mechanical movements, but there'd be very specific sounds in the score, a spring, or water falling, but the movement never had any literal correlation to the sound.

RITA: And I thought they would stop, and then certain sounds got them going again. The music gave them the cues.

RACHEL: Pavlovian.

RITA: Absolutely.

RACHEL: Especially the phrase with the cartwheel. It was a disturbing piece. And it's funny, because you see the dancers dancing in mechanistic ways in the other works, and it doesn't bother you. And then you see them dressed like humans and dancing in mechanistic ways, and it bothered me.

Let's say you're writing a review. What's the most important thing about the performance that you want to convey right up front, in your first two paragraphs?

RITA: That Nikolais was a very inventive, all-around artist, that his dance was fully integrated into the specific environment he created for each piece. I don't think I know of any other artist who has done it quite the same way he has.

RACHEL: I would start with something similar. But I think it's hard to start with that kind of statement in a daily newspaper review, because you're trying to get across the historical importance of something, but you also want to communicate to the reader why it was exciting. And it's hard to get those elements commingling up in the first two paragraphs, to hook a reader in. So I think this would be one of the harder leads to write.

RITA: It's curious, isn't it, that an artist like Nikolais, who was such an individual in his work, raises the question of what is the individual’s role in his dances.

RACHEL: I also wonder how you would feel as a dancer performing these works because there's so little individual glory for you in it.

RITA: In that courtship piece (“Two Together”), right at the end he seemed to make the point of stressing individuality, and that they were two people and not just executioners of patterns. Yet there is also joy in creating shapes together as an ensemble.

RACHEL: It is funny that works that are so seemingly impersonal can have so much charm.

RITA: How did you feel about the pieces’ emotional relevance, what you were left with?

RACHEL: I felt there was a sense of celebration, and wonder that our universe even exists!

RITA: And that people together can accomplish what they did. So it would probably be a three star review.

RACHEL: (Laughter) And we're so glad we don't have to assign stars, in practice.

RITA: I would do two and a half or three.

RACHEL: I would do three, not less than three.

RITA: My hesitation would be because of the music, which I sometimes thought was crude. I think he was more gifted visually than in music.

RACHEL: He certainly was a gifted costume designer.

RITA: And not just costumes, there were those beautiful backdrops, those gorgeous colors.

First:  Liturgies, Noumenon Mobilus
Second:  Tensile Involvement.  Photos: Tom Caravaglia

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 5
October 27, 2003
Copyright ©2003 by Rita Felciano and Rachel Howard




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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on October 27, 2003