The Buzz, 9-12: Legacies
Remembering Nik; Losing Ailey; Saving Dunham; Hines's Sight
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider
PARIS -- Delacroix is
there. So are Bernhardt, Collette, Corot, Pissarro, Bizet, Balzac,
Proust, Baudelaire, Apollinaire, Laurencin, Montand, Wilde and,
of course, Jim Morrison. Alwin Nikolais, who passed away in 1993,
is there too. But unlike these luminaries and unlike Isadora Duncan,
with whom he shares a balcony in the sprawling crematorium, Nik,
as his dancers and other colleagues of the multi-media dance pioneer
call him, is not on the maps of famous residents posted around Pere
Lachaise, the ancient Paris cemetery where NIk's ashes reside.
Nikolais Dance Theatre
itself died an unheralded
death in December 1999, when the dance-theater pioneer's
longtime and also legendary partner, Murray Louis, effectively folded
its last incarnation, the Murray Louis and Nikolais Dance Company.
Now, if you believe the strong indications on the Joyce Theater
web site, the Nikolais Dance Theatre has been resurrected.
Take a look at the Fall
calendar on the Joyce site. Every other performer is
indicated by the name of the company. For instance, the company
performing repertory by William Forsythe, Christopher Wheeldon,
and Russell Maliphant is not called the Forsythe-Wheeldon-Maliphant
Dance Company, but by its proper name, George Piper Dances. But
Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, the ensemble performing October 28
to November 2, is identified as the Nikolais Dance Theatre -- one
of the actual names of Nik's company before it merged with Louis's.
Click on "Nikolais Dance
Theater" on that page, and you're taken
to a page on which the heading is "Nikolais Dance Theatre."
You don't find out until reading the text beneath that what you'll
actually be getting if you fork over $40 for a ticket ($46.50 if
you buy it on the web through Telecharge) is a "unique collaboration
between the Nikolais/Louis Foundation and the Ririe-Woodbury Dance
Company." Here's how a press release from R-W, which is directed
by two dancers who trained with Nik, put it earlier this year: "Murray
Louis of Nikolais/Louis Foundation for Dance selected Ririe-Woodbury
Dance Company as the performing company for Alwin Nikolais: A Celebration
Tour, ten years after Nikolais's death." The tour is being funded,
according to R-W, with the support of American Express, the state
of Utah, the Emma Eccles Jones Foundation, the George S. and Dolores
Dore Eccles Foundation, the Harkness Foundation, the Mellon Foundation,
the National Endowment for the Arts, and "the Altria Group Inc.,"
a.k.a. Philip Morris, the cigarette manufacturer. (By the way, according
to a study
released today, smoking killed nearly five million people in 2000.)
This is all fine and
accurate. But it's a leap to bill the company as Nikolais Dance
Theatre, which is the strong implication on the Joyce web site.
(Even the photograph on the page for "Nikolais Dance Theatre" is
not of Ririe-Woodbury or other dancers who will be performing the
work, but of Nik veterans Peter Kyle and Alberto del Saz.) The Pittsburgh
Ballet Theatre -- or the Paris Opera Ballet, for that matter --
does not bill itself as New York City Ballet just because it's performing
an all-Balanchine program under the supervision of the Balanchine
I put my concerns to
R-W co-director Joan Woodbury, Joyce marketing director Elizabeth
Fort, and Ellen Jacobs Associates, publicist for the Joyce and for
the Nikolais/Lous Foundation/Ririe-Woodbury's New York season.
"Yes, the repertory
is Nikolais, seven of his dances, with Murray Louis and Tito del
Saz directing," said Woodbury, who met Nikolais in 1949 at a summer
workshop directed by Hanya Holm at which Nik was teaching, and would
go on to teach his technique at the University of Utah. "The company
performing is the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, augmented with four
additional dancers. So, we are a company of 10 for this wonderful
project." The repertory includes "Crucible," "Lythic," "Blank on
Blank," 'Shadow Dance finale from Liturgies," "Noumenon," "Mechanical
Organ," and "Tensile Involvement."
"As for the billing
of the Joyce season," explained Odile Reine-Adelaide of Ellen Jacobs
Associates, "the engagement is a production of the Nikolais/Louis
Foundation. It is directed by Murray Louis, who is hiring the Ririe-Woodbury
Dance Company dancers and some additional dancers to perform the
works of Alwin Nikolais. Murray Louis is also responsible for leading
the training of the performers. In no way, shape or form was there
a deliberate attempt to deceive or mislead the public." How, then,
would she explain the photo? "Photos of the Ririe-Woodbury Dance
Company were not available at the brochure and web posting deadline."
Is the Joyce, which
is actually selling the tickets for the event, misleading its audience?
"The Nikolais-Louis Foundation is self-presenting this event, and
it is their decision how to bill the engagement," says Fort. "It
is an evening designed to celebrate Nikolais's work and in the description
of the engagement in brochures, web site and in all press releases,
we make sure to explain that it is unique collaboration with Ririe-Woodbury
that is making it possible to bring his work to the stage once again."
And what about the dancers
from the real Nikolais Dance Theatre and Murray Louis and Nikolais
Dance Company? I asked several of them for their views on both the
use of the name and the endeavor in general. Following are some
responses, with names withheld at my suggestion.
"I read your comment and it is well taken. The die of death for
the N/L company was cast over three years ago, however, and in vain
would we look for a reconstitution. Ririe-Woodbury has a long history
with Nikolais training and repertory and they are getting close
scrutiny by Murray for this program. Art renews itself, does it
not? I am confident the R-W Co. will give a loving and lovely season."
"I didn't know they were billing themselves as such.... I guess
I think that is reprehensible, to say the least, but at the same
time I am grateful that SOME company out there is doing the work
since the Nikolais Co. no longer seems in existence. And the Ririe-Woodbury
directors trained under Nik for quite some time. I am sure he would
see them as his artistic descendents... but of course he probably
would not want them misleading the public."
"There are many ways to look at this, some good, some bad. Let me
start by saying that on a gut level the whole thing kind of makes
me angry, but I think that has much more to do with the fact that
I envy those R-W dancers! I miss doing the work terribly.
"I also feel for some
of the last generation of Nik-Louis dancers who are still dancing
and were left hanging at the end. They would love to do the work,
and some are probably quite miffed that they weren't at least given
the option to return. Especially after the dedication they showed
"Aside from that, I
actually find myself quite supportive of this endeavor. I concur
with other alumni that R-W would do a swell job of performing the
work. I believe they already have a Nik work or two or three in
their rep. Not to mention that reconstructor extraordinaire Tito
is on the job.
"You know, only half
of the company at the end was trained in the technique anyway. The
other half had 'on the job' training. And even when the school was
around, they still auditioned out for dancers sometimes. Again,
'on the job' training. What I am trying to say is that the R-Ws
are about as trained in the technique as anyone these days, are
VERY committed to perpetuating the work as honestly as possible,
and are under a very watchful eye. So in a sense, they are all we
"If you squint your
eyes, you can see it this way: They are a bunch of dancers who are
sometimes called Ririe-Woodbury, and then sometimes called Nikolais
Dance Theatre. I think if the Joyce billed it as R-W doing Nik,
you are right, not as many tix would sell. From a 'profit' standpoint
(and I wonder, does anybody really profit financially from these
things?), perhaps a bit of a fib, but from my perspective, the more
people who see the work, the better, and perhaps even a better chance
to bring back the REAL company. Alright, a bit of dreamin', but
"I am glad that you have opened the discussion regarding the Nikolais
"So, I have mixed feelings
about the upcoming season. Although the work will not be performed
under the ideal circumstances, as it is impossible for dancers to
achieve proficiency in a technique in only six weeks, I am still
happy that Nikolais is being commemorated. I intend to bring my
own students to the Joyce, but will also have a discussion with
them regarding the circumstances of the performance.
"Ideally, the company
would still be a fully functioning unit as it once had been. But
as this has not been the case since 1999, most of the former company
members currently have other commitments that would prevent them
from participating in a one-time season -- one member is currently
in 'The Lion King' on Broadway, others have full-time teaching positions,
children, etc. And some of them have not danced since the company
folded. Sort of a Catch-22 situation.
"I appreciate the dialogue
and hope that I have been able to lend some insight. Keep me posted
on the discussion, I would be curious to hear other responses."
It's clear, then, that the real Nik dancers are mostly just pleased
that the repertory will continue to live -- and from talking to
Woodbury over the past two years about its perilous state, I'm sure
that this is what motivates R-W as well. I'll still take exception
to the marketing, though, because, first, a company is not just
repertory, it's also the dancers who have trained in the technique
and performed that repertory over an extended period of years. Or,
as another Nik dancer put it to me, "I am struggling between the
permanence of the work against the permanence of the technique."
Second, dance's history in general is not esteemed -- how else to
explain why Alwin Nikolais is not considered worthy for inclusion
on the map of the famous buried at Pere Lachaise? If we want our
history esteemed, we have to start by esteeming it ourselves, and
that means being accurate with how we represent it.
If you want to look
for Alwin Nikolais, you can find him in shelf #6627 at Pere Lachaise,
two columns to the right of Isadora (#6796, but the map will tell
you that). If you want to look for Nikolais Dance Theatre, you won't
find it on the stage of the Joyce Theater October 28-November 2.
Where's the Alvin?
....Which is not to
say that the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company should not be proud of
what it's doing! It might not actually be the Nikolais Dance Theatre,
but it's presenting more complete dances by Alwin Nikolais in one
week than the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is by Alvin Ailey
in one month. That's right! The riddle of why the Ailey company
has for the most part lost the spirit of its founder has apparently
been solved: It's hardly doing any of his work any more! The 21
complete ballets in the Ailey's upcoming City Center season include
just four complete works by its founder. (There will also be an
Ailey Classics program of excerpts.) It's certainly laudable that
the Ailey uses its stature and popularity to promote classics by
other choreographers, such as Donald McKayle's "Rainbow 'Round My
Shoulder," and also that it fosters new work by Dwight Rhoden, Alonzo
King, and others. But can we please see more by Ailey besides "Revelations,"
"Cry," "Night Creature" and "Memoria"? These are all great dances,
but they do not come close to exhausting the breadth and depth of
the Alvin Ailey repertoire.
.... As long as the
Ailey company does apparently see itself as a preserver of work
by other African-American choreographers, how about regularly mounting
work by the grandmothers, Pearl Primus and Katherine Dunham, without
whom there might not BE an Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater?
Dunham. Photo courtesy Katherine Dunham.
Dunham, for one, could
use the exposure. While the Ailey company was able to secure the
funding to construct what it bills as the largest facility for dance
in New York, Dunham, 94 or 91 years old depending on your sources,
continues to search for a proper home for her legacy. "Like many
of our arts and cultural institutions, Miss Dunham's Center has
been impacted significantly, a la the drive to establish a Legacy
Residence and Foundation in New York," says the Dunham Legacy Project's
Charlotte Ottley. "We truly need an Angel Philanthropist or Investor."
Tonight at Symphony
Space, as part of the continuing effort to raise funds to preserve
Dunham's archives, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee will host a tribute
to Ms. Dunham, in her presence. Organized by the Pangea Theatre
Company, the tribute, commencing at 8 p.m., will feature Carmen
de Lavallade performing with Wynton Marsalis, a reading from Ms.
Dunham's work by Edwidge Danticat, and performances by the Marie
Brooks Pan Caribbean Dance Company. Perhaps the Ailey, which teaches
Dunham technique at its school, could offer the Dunham Legacy Residence
and Foundation a home in its spanking new facilities.
....Speaking of legacies:
One of the late Gregory
Hines's many unheralded projects was American Repertory
Ballet's Princeton Ballet School's DancePower. Since its inception
in 1986, Hines was the program's national honorary chairperson,
and thus a role model for thousands of New Brunswick, NJ public
schoolchildren. He performed in three benefits for this dance-education
partnership with the city's public school district. And in 1999,
he established the Gregory Hines DancePower Scholarship at Rutgers
University, intended to help a New Brunswick High School graduate
and DancePower participant attend the university. "We are deeply
saddened by the passing of Mr. Hines," said ARB director Graham
Lustig. "However, we take solace in remembering his enormous talent
and his willingness to share his gift with children." DancePower
has dedicated its 203-04 season to Hines's memory.