Pilobolus, Momix, and Cirque du Soleil have amazed audiences for years with their fantastical creations, but the predecessor and inspiration for their work was Alwin Nikolais, a 20th-century choreographer and pioneer of multimedia dance. Since the formation of Nikolais Dance Theatre in 1948, his blend of unusual props, innovative costumes, psychedelic lighting designs, and original music compositions have transformed stages into abstract environments and his dancers into curious creatures. This year marks the centennial of Nikolais’s birth (he died in 1993), and New York is one of 10 cities world-wide celebrating his contributions to dance in 2010. In late April and early May, the Abrons Arts Center—Nikolais’s original artistic home when it was called the Henry Street Playhouse—and The Joyce Theater presented revivals of several of his works performed by Utah’s Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, marking the first time his work has been seen in New York City since 2003. Ririe-Woodbury, founded in 1964 by former Nikolais Dance Theatre members Joan Woodbury and Shirley Ririe, is the sole company responsible for continuing Nikolais’s legacy and preserving his work. Performances at both venues (directed by Alberto del Saz and Murray Louis, artistic directors of the Nikolais-Louis Foundation for Dance) delighted audiences with their imaginative qualities and wit.
Nikolais’s dances are unified by their rejection of narrative and emotion. Unlike many other choreographers working in the 1940’s and 50’s (Martha Graham, José Limón, and George Balanchine come to mind), he was more interested in pushing creative boundaries than developing a dance vocabulary. Indeed, his dances are not just memorable for the choreography—only one of many ingredients that Nik, as he was often called, used to work his magic—but also for the way he wove together movement, music, lighting, and costumes to create an abstract feast for the eyes. He maintained a do-it-yourself approach to his work, serving as his own choreographer, lighting designer, costume designer, and music composer. Each component was equally important and received the same consideration as he built his pieces.
At Abrons Arts Center, this was most apparent in Imago: The City Curious (1963), a colorful, visually stunning piece in six sections. The dancers wore floor-length dresses with bright vertical stripes and whimsical hats in the opening as they jumped on one leg to the tinny sound design. Later, a quintet of women in airy dresses bobbed their heads playfully, followed by a quintet of men who had long tubes attached to their arms so that they became four-legged mammals. Rather than packing each piece with excessive props and costumes or overly busy lighting designs, Nikolais proved that just a few imaginative ideas can create a stimulating work.
His best-known piece, Tensile Involvement (1955), which was performed at Abrons by the Center’s own Dance Ensemble and again at The Joyce by Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, is a life-size cat’s cradle in which the dancers crisscrossed the stage with long white ribbons that extended into the wings. They jumped, ran, and carefully maneuvered the ribbons to frame their bodies or create new—and always fresh—diagonals through the space.
In Noumenon Mobilus (1953) and Crucible” (1985), Nikolais transformed the dancers into gorgeous creatures. The former featured a trio of men encased in stretchy silver fabric. As their torsos shifted or limbs curled they became aliens, ghosts, or futuristic robots. Intentional or not, the fabric’s subtle vibrations echoed that of Nikolais’s score. The wonderfully inventive Crucible revealed worm-like insects—the dancers’ arms—that were reflected by long angled mirrors. These morphed into larger shapes and eventually into naked torsos bathed in a colorful, flowing lighting design of speckles, stripes, and swirls. Even more creatures appeared in excerpts from Liturgies (1983). Most memorable were the pairs of dancers in silhouette moving as one organism, so that they appeared headless or armless as they mirrored each other’s movement.
Interestingly, The Joyce performances closed with the third section from Vaudeville of the Elements, called "Tower" (1968), which clearly broke away from Nikolais’s lack of interest in narrative and emotion. In the midst of a lot of shouting and spoken tidbits, the 10 dancers collaborated as they used metal frames to build a tower. Yet, shortly after admiring their accomplishment and decorating it with colorful flags that showed various progressive symbols, the tower toppled and whistles blared. Chaos ensued. The overtly political piece lacked the magic and visual intrigue of Nikolais’s other works and seemed a poor choice to close the otherwise sparkling program.
Crucible, Imago, and Kaleidoscope Suite—a striking 1956 work in which a circular attachment on the dancers’ feet contributed to the sound design and made interesting patterns on the scrim—provided the best examples of Nikolais’s immense creativity and wit. His interest in multimedia dance was light years ahead of his time. And more than 50 years after he started imagining new worlds for the stage, Nik’s work still dazzles.