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Flash View, 11-16: There Used to Be a Dance Company Here
Murray Louis and Alwin Nikolais Dance, RIP

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

One windy evening in early December 1999, the eminent choreographer Murray Louis lifted a huge sharp knife above a cake and, with a twinkle in his eye, plunged it into the cake. A moment before slicing the desert, he had mock stabbed himself in the stomach. Unbeknownst to most of the adoring fans at the party, which followed an emotional homecoming performance of the Murray Louis and Nikolais Dance Company at the Henry Street Playhouse, the gesture was prophetic. The performance proved to be the last by this major 20th century dance company. Only, to the profound sorrow of the dancers who had sweated to keep the works of Nikolais and the vision of Louis alive, the death of the company was not so swift. It was never announced. It was hardly acknowledged by Louis. And the dancers had no coupe de grace, which would have been painful but at least provided closure. Rather, the company died, it seems, because Murray Louis was tired of running it, and, mysteriously, not ready to entertain the idea of turning the reigns over to someone else. When Louis takes his bow tonight at the Joyce Theater, following the Limon Dance Company's premiere of his latest work, many will regard him with deserved awe. Others, however, will also look at him and think: There used to be a dance company there.

It is a tragedy and a sorrow that Mr. Louis is premiering work on other companies not trained in his technique, while his own company, Murray Louis and Nikolais Dance, has been allowed to die a death of attrition, echoing the earlier demise of the Nikolais-Louis School.

The dancers trained in his style were never given an official closure, while dancers not trained in the work are given it to dance. This is nothing against the Limon dancers, who will probably acquit themselves well. Rather, I stand in defense of the Louis and Nikolais dancers, especially the last class, as it were, who, while their colleagues were dancing with much "hipper" companies, gave over 200 percent their bodies and minds to representing Mr. Louis's and Mr. Nikolais's works as they ought. Their reward for this devotion and sacrifice? Those dancers received no official notice that their company was dead; Mr. Louis, said to have let it languish because he was tired, made little apparent attempt to appoint a successor, even though many former Louis and Nikolais dancers are out there who would wear this mantle with honor.

As regards Louis's own work, one can perhaps say that he has a right to give it as he wants, whether on his own company or by commission to another. (Although this work was probably funded at least in part by a federal National Endowment for the Arts grant, in the expectation it would be mounted on the Louis-Nikolais company during its Joyce season -- a season that never happened.) And certainly it is no secret that the company faced financial challenges, of which Mr. Louis was justly weary. But I don't know that he has a right to have let the work of Mr. Nikolais if not die -- it is still being taught and presented in university settings, and hopefully more of that will follow -- then languish in dormant obscurity away from the spotlight it deserves. (More and more, I see people pointing out as original, because they just don't know better -- the work of Philippe Decoufle, who studied with Nikolais, comes to mind -- dance theater which Mr. Nikolais was turning out fifty years ago). Especially -- ESPECIALLY -- when there are veteran Louis-Nikolais dancers still out there able to dance the work and do it proud.

As well, in giving up the Murray Louis and Nikolais Dance Company, I believe Mr. Louis is undervaluing his own work, which should be required viewing in every college comp. class in the world. While it is generous of our leading choreographers -- of which Mr. Louis is one, and a giant parallel in originality to Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham -- to share their work with other companies, and for these companies to provide a home to the work, will it suffer from not being created on dancers who know the language? There's been much just raving, for example, about Paul Taylor's recent "Black Tuesday," and the American Ballet Theatre dancers who premiered it, but, like his previous masterpiece "Company B," Mr. Taylor actually created this dance on his own company. The ABT dancers have made it their own, but I don't know that it would be the same powerful dance if Mr. Taylor had not been able to work it out on dancers who know his vocabulary so intimately. They know his language; they know his short-hand; and, most important, for the truest representation of Mr. Taylor's works, they know the dark nuances that lurk in even a seemingly mundane gesture.

With Mr. Louis's work, the subtleties are, usually, in his sense of humor. Giving all due credit to the Limon dancers, whose repertoire encompasses a pantheon of modern (and some ballet) giants legendary and topical, to whose work they always do eloquent justice, their canon is a rather somber one. A Nikolais-Louis dancer knows the joke contained in a simple flick of the wrist; and knows the droll wit that a quick glance at the audience can convey; he or she knows the balance between using a prop as a vehicle for humor, and relying solely on the gimmick. Most of all -- and in all of this, I'm thinking again and again of "Four Brubeck Pieces" -- they know how he wants them to play. They read between the lines of a dance phrase. The Limon dancers will no doubt get and convey Louis's spot-on musicality, but will they be able to get the rhythm of his play, of his comedy? Do they know how to wink, inna Louis style? They will give a performance tonight that none will be embarrassed about -- these are rock-solid artists -- and give voice to Mr. Louis's vision, but how much truer might that voice have been to the creator if he had actually created the work on dancers used to listening to him, used to reading his intricate and foxy mind, used to knowing the intention behind his dance speech?

I don't fault (and indeed praise!) the Limon Company for programming the work -- any modern company would be crazy not to jump at the chance to premiere a new work by Mr. Louis, whose dances should be required viewing for all young choreographers, and which always provide ample stimulation to the audience. I don't know that I even have a right to question Mr. Louis's decision. I love the work, and I know that the Nikolais-Louis dancers speak only highly of him. (It should be noted that this campaign is not sought by them; most of all, their emotions center on sadness for the demise of the company, and respect for Mr. Louis personally and his work.) But I just have some questions: Will Mr. Louis acknowledge that the company is dead? Or, better, will he do justice to his own and Nikolais's classic and ever-modern work, and consider whether one of the dancers who have given years to the work of both can lead the company? It's ultimately his choice; but I think the rest of us -- audience, critics, and, most of all -- MOST OF ALL -- the Murray Louis/Nikolais dancers -- have a right to ask for a discussion.

Murray Louis deserves the acclaim which will justly follow tonight's premiere; if his past work is any indication, it will be an instant masterpiece. Were I there myself, I would be the first jumping to my feet to applaud him. The Limon dancers, too, deserve cheers for keeping Mr. Louis's vision alive where his own company is no longer around to do so, a task to which I'm sure they will devote their hearts, souls, and bodies. But those Murray Louis and Alwin Nikolais dancers deserve an airing and a hearing, too -- whether it is a wink of hope from Mr. Louis, or the final swipe of the knife which will at least give them closure. Two years is too long to wait.

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