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Flash Response, 9-16: Nik's Legacy
By Trista Redavid & Peter Kyle

(Editor's Note: Following Paul Ben-Itzak's Buzz column Friday on Alwin Nikolais, the Dance Insider asked former Murray Louis and Nikolais Dance Company members Trista Redavid and Peter Kyle to comment on the pioneering choreographer's legacy and its current representation. Their letters follow.)

Trista Redavid writes:

My thoughts are similar to those of my colleagues, I'm sure, when I say that I am very thankful and excited that Nik and his works are being honored this year. Not only are we celebrating his genius through the presentation of his works at the Joyce Theater (Oct. 28 - Nov. 2), but we are also celebrating the Nikolais/Louis technique at the Nikolais Legacy Conference to be held at Hunter College on October 10-12, 2003, which will consist of performances from alumni, master classes from the original company (Murray, Gladys Bailin, and Phyllis Lamhut) and panel discussions (one of which I am participating in).

Although I was taken back when I saw the Nikolais Dance Theatre ad for the Joyce with Peter Kyle and Tito del Saz's picture, I use the term taken back because it took me back -- to the wonderful time I spent with them doing those works. Yes, dancers in general battle with their own egos every day and although there are some of us from the last generation of the company who could still perform those works beautifully, it would have been virtually impossible to leave our stable jobs (in which some of us teach the Nikolais technique daily) to travel across the country. It made perfect sense for the Ririe-Woodbury company to do it. Shirley Ririe and Joan Woodbury have had such a longtime connection to Nik, Murray and the technique. The Ririe-Woodbury company has also had the most accurate person to teach them the repertory, Tito del Saz. With his 20 years of experience in the company, he would never let something go on stage that was not 'perfect'! I feel completely confident that the work will be well represented. And for those of you who know a bit about the technique, one of the things I personally love about the technique is that there is room for improvisation within the work which changes with each individual performing it. For example, Sara Hook, Lynn Lesniak and Simona Bucci have all done the 'doll solo' from "Mechanical Organ" differently. Granted, one does not change the gestalt of the movement but works within the confines of it. That's part of the excitement in Nik work and in the Nikolais/Louis technique that makes it so unique!

I'm assuming that it might be difficult to sit in the theater as an audience member as I might be tempted to do some of the choreography in my seat. So, if you're there opening night, watch out when they do Web ("Tensile Involvement").

Peter Kyle writes:

I'm honored that you contacted me regarding this. I have thought a great deal about this upcoming retrospective tour, the state of the Nikolais/Louis repertory/company, and the important ideas Nik and Murray introduced to the dance community over so many years. My feelings are many, and complex, so bear with me as I try to pass some of them on to you....

I must admit that while I naturally feel bittersweet about the repertory no longer being performed by the actual Louis/Nikolais company, I am happy that it is being performed at all. As I have told you before, I am still in good contact with Murray, and count him as one of my most important mentors and teachers. What he, and Nik have done as champions of the art form for 50-plus years is astounding, and worthy of tremendous respect. I know you have deep appreciation for their work, and I know that many people are upset at the idea of Murray "giving up" the company, only to continue making and re-staging work on other companies (Limon, now Ririe-Woodbury). However, when I consider the challenges Murray (and Nik) faced over decades of decreasing financial support, let alone the simple physical and emotional toll exacted (on him) from all the years of creating, performing, supporting a school, a company, archives, a foundation, writing books, giving lectures, guest teaching, making films, it's no wonder that someone in his mid-seventies might decide to slow down and let go of some of those commitments. Having said this, one might ask: Well, why would he simply not give control of the company, school, etc. over to someone else? I don't have an answer to that, and can only suspect that it might be like giving one's soul or identity over for someone else to manage. I'm not sure I could do it. I think... this situation sheds important light on the nature of our art form and how we are forever trying to fight against the ephemeral nature of, not only the dances themselves, but the institutions that develop around a body of dances. It really is like building a house and expecting it to last forever, only it's built out of cards that are easily displaced by changing trends in the marketplace of dance, funding patterns, and the sometimes finite levels of energy of those individuals who keep the organization going.

I don't mean to suggest with this that I think the company should have folded, or that the best thing for the legacy of the company, and the unique artists who built it, is to have the repertory now performed by other companies. What I can say is that the Ririe-Woodbury company has a long standing tradition of supporting, and sometimes performing the work of Nik and Murray, and thus (I hope) shows some consistency, in terms of Murray passing work down the family tree, so to speak. Under Murray's and Tito's guidance I have faith that they will represent the work with polish and professionalism. I have been a part of several re-stagings of Nikolais-Louis work here, in Seattle, with the Chamber Dance Company (Nik's "Tensile Involvement" and Murray's "Four Brubeck Pieces," on two occasions, and this fall will be a part of the setting of Nik's "Pond") and know Murray not only sanctioned these performances, but has also been very happy with the outcome. So, does this mean that every company choreographer should be fully willing to "sell" his/her work, or give an entire repertory over to passionate and able disciples in order to have the work live on? Maybe so. I know that as I teach many college students these days, I try to do my best to be sure they know who these artists are and why they are important to the canon of modern dance, worldwide. Having the work still performed would make my job easier in this regard -- though sadly, and for whatever myriad reasons, the Ririe-Woodbury tour does not seem to be coming through Seattle or the Pacific Northwest at all.

I guess I ultimately feel we need to remember that these veteran, ground-breaking artists are also human, and that they too deserve some amount of peace after years of giving, and giving, and giving (or perhaps to be allowed to focus their energies on other aspects of their work -- Murray has, as you may know, been working tirelessly on at least one book about the company, the technique, and the work). Our culture seems to require that they all continue on until they die, and that they make it possible for their work to live on well beyond their years. I'm not certain this is reasonable to expect of any individual. And yet, yes, at the end of the day, I know, from having experienced the countless joys of working and touring with Murray, and that wonderful company of superb dancers (all of whom I miss) over a period of seven years, that I would without a doubt wish those experiences on other dancers, and audiences. Besides, I wouldn't put it past Mr. Louis to some day put together again some version of a company to perform his and Nik's work. I mention this, not on any authority, but knowing that inside of Murray is still a fiery, driven, deeply creative, humane, and productive individual. Maybe instead of complaining about what we feel we have lost, we should instead be working hard to celebrate what we have shared and what currently is being produced, and making sure the work has a potent legacy in many and far-reaching ways.

On a final side note, I think it is wonderful to have my picture as advertisement for the enduring work of the "company." Isn't there some ironic and perpetual truth about dancers rarely being in company advertising until after they've left...? I wonder if I can get a copy of the poster?

I commend you on pursuing this story, and probing further into the complexities of this art form.

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