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Flash Flashback, 2-22: Resurrection
On the Wings of Ririe-Woodbury, Nikolais Returns

(Editor's Note: The Dance Insider has been revisiting its Flash Archive. This Flash originally appeared on February 25, 2004. Ririe-Woodbury has returned to France to perform the work of Alwin Nikolais, with upcoming shows in Bourges (February 28 and March 1), Nevers (March 2 and 3), Bayonne (7 and 8), Arachon (10 and 11), Tarbes (14), Blagnac (17 - 19), St. Etienne (21) and Dijon (24). Date information at end of article is no longer current.)

"The Master Nikolais
Child of invention
Dreamer of visions
Creator of forms which
longed to be born
He gave us --
Water for thirst
Fire for desire
Earth for to dance
Air for to fly
Ether for to dream
Gifts for to
Carry on."

--Carolyn Carlson

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004, 2006 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- After a 12-year absence, Alwin Nikolais returned to Paris last night, and he couldn't have found a better vehicle for his resurrection on the stage of the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt than the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company: Snezana Adjanski, Joseph (Jo) Blake, Chia-Chi Chiang, Juan Carlos Claudio, Ai Fujii, Trey Gillen, Caine Keenan, Melissa McDonald, Brandin Scott Steffensen and my instant favorite in February or any month, Liberty Valentine. If the late Nikolais's life and work partner Murray Louis and celebrated Nik-Louis dancer Alberto del Saz get the credit for crystalline reconstructions of five works and extracts from two others, then the Utah-based company of Joan Woodbury & Shirley Ririe, two devoted pupils of Nik, gets the credit for completely embodying the work in an emotionally and artistically invested performance that singularly reminded of the work's contemporary relevance.

As regular readers of the DI know, I've taken exception to the way this project has sometimes been represented, which has given the misleading impression that it involved not just Nikolais's work but his company. (That has continued here in Paris, by the way; while the Theatre de la Ville has correctly billed the engagement as the work of Alwin Nikolais being performed by the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company -- choreographers are usually given first billing here -- the daily Liberation, whose dance coverage is usually authoritative, erroneously stated yesterday that the work was being performed by the Nikolais company.) My objection has been two-fold: First, the Murray Louis and Nikolais Dance Company died in December 1999, a death at least in part ignoble because it has never really been acknowledged; second, and without meaning any disrespect to the Ririe-Woodbury company and its dancers, generally speaking there is (or should be) a difference between the work of a master choreographer who has a technique when performed by dancers who have trained for years in that technique and dancers who simply learn the choreography for given dances. Even though the San Francisco Ballet performs some of Balanchine's work better than the New York City Ballet, it would be misleading if it billed itself as the New York City Ballet whenever it presented an all-Balanchine program.

Last night's stellar performance by the Ririe-Woodbury company validates my point by the same positive example. In fact, the dancers do matter. Before I'd seen this company in the work, I'd pressed that point because, frankly, suggesting that this was the Alwin Nikolais Company -- as the Joyce Theater did for last fall's New York performances -- seemed to promise something that the actual company performing the work couldn't necessarily deliver. Now that I've seen these dancers in the work, if anything I think this company should be wearing its own name with pride. I'm not going to make a comparison because it's been five years since I've seen the last Louis-Nikolais troupe in the work (see my review linked to above). But the R-W dancers definitely gave this work as it absolutely needs to be given.

Just before curtain, I warned my companion that if the work seemed derivative or old-fashioned, in fact it was the opposite; French artists she may have seen, like Philippe Decoufle, are just the copies -- this work was the original. I had worried in vain; my companion insisted the work didn't seem dated at all. Part of this is Louis and del Saz finding a way into the aesthetic that has meaning for these dancers, of course. But a bigger part is that they understood that to be believed, the work had to be delivered with utter commitment. Like Momix afterwards and to a lesser extent Pilobolus, because Nikolais's scenarios are often about using the ensemble to depict a larger organism, the aesthetic can be sabotaged by dancers who don't believe in it and merely play 'goofy,' and can also project as simply cold if the dancers divest themselves of human warmth. These dancers, however, were luminous, starting off with sensational "Crucible," a late-Nikolais (1985; he passed in 1993) work which begins with miniatures, hand-creatures glowing white on the floor, progresses to arms and cupped hands forming, in the spotted light, giraffes at a social, and moves on to quatra-limbed amoebas (they're standing behind a mirrored ramp which comes up to their waists) to arching, glistening and sometimes coupling torsoes.

In a brilliant program structure, the cast was to embody progressively more 'human' characters as the evening developed. If "Crucible" revealed their ability to subsume themselves in a typical Nik organism (thoughout the program, Nikolais's experimental-for-the-times electronic music and pre-psychadelic lighting, plus the late Frank Garcia's costumes helped), "Lythic," an excerpt from the 1956 "Prism," showcased their dedicated concentration. The choreography here is minimum, hieroglyphic like Jerome Robbins's "Antique Epigraphs," centered on two-dimensional friezes such as the front-facing four tall women sashaying laterally on the balls of their feet, in tight-fitting but stretchable long printed gowns, or turning to the side and crossing together in their towering newspaper-crown like hats. But it works because of the conviction of Adjanski, Chiang, McDonald and Valentine, particularly when their serious focus on us makes it impossible to laugh at their mincing feet. Their lower bodies are doing something silly, but their intent forward gaze makes us take them -- and the work -- in earnest.

"Blank on Blank," another late-Nikolais (1987) work, is one of the two most problematic entries on the program. No longer parts of an organism, the dancers are at once dressed as distinct personalities -- with construction outfits or smart skirts, some of the men and the women with '20s-style English caps -- and yet need to give the aspect of being at the will of Nikolais's jumpy score, which riffs on the sounds of a construction site. Here's where I first noticed Valentine, a Trista Redavid throwback who gave in to goofy but with enough of an aware wink in her eyes that she wasn't just doing the Raggedy-Ann thing but, particularly tossed about in a duet, seemed to...well, to be enjoying it and laughing with us. Even though the obvious choice suggested by the score (and, presumably, the choreography) was "puppet" or "marionette," Valentine so fully occupied her character that, well, the character became real.

The whole cast had its moments in this theatrically challenging (because it would be so easy to play superficially) work, particularly in a repeated motif where everyone would suddenly be arrested while their arms continued to swing.

The evening hit its first snag (though not literally) in the 1955 "Tensile Involvement," the signature Nikolais piece in which the cast basically plays a very large game of Cat's Cradle. Like the best Momix, what elevates this work from gimmicky is the two soloists and their virtuosity. Though not quite virtuous, Adjanski more or less delivered, but Gillen was simply thuddish, in his limited extensions and landings -- particularly if one recalls the sharply-toned del Saz in this (literally) pivotal role.

"Noumenon Mobilus" was what I was thinking of when I'd warned my companion that if the work seemed derivative, au contraire -- it was the template. The two performers totally encased in and manipulating satiny material instantly made me think "Momix" -- until I looked at the program and saw that it was created in 1953, when Moses Pendleton was still in short pants. Like Momix later, the manipulations are so simple -- as when a globe presses out at about head level -- that the humor is not so much inherent in the given motion but in how drolly it's delivered. And Claudio and Steffensen delivered.

The (I think) full-company "Finale," excerpted from the 1983 "Liturgies," suggested another reason why this work does not appear dated -- it's retro! From the (for want of a better word) neon lighting to the tight costumes, there's a late-'50s, early '60s, science fiction-Flintstones look which -- from the space-age bachelor pad where I write you from now, anyway -- is in AGAIN.

Choreographically, "Mechanical Organ," from 1980, was the weakest link and maybe even most questionable programming of the evening. Interesting as a full progression from the amoebic work that began the program because the dancers (or rather their roles) were now full personalities, it seemed less distinct from other choreographers' work of the period -- almost as if Nikolais was trying to test himself and see how he could create sans loopy lighting and weird musical elements. (Here the score was by the David Darling Ensemble.) Ohp! Speaking of music, though, I'm reminded of another gift these dancers' bring to Nikolais's work -- their total dedication to musicality. It was a tonic, for one has become used -- here, anyway -- to seeing modern dance choreography that disdains music -- if it uses music at all. In fact, the demeanor of these American dancers overall was such a welcome tonic in a dour French environment that seems more and more dominated by detached (or at least faux-detached) performing, in which limbs seem to move without the involvement of the guts or diaphragm. These Utah kids are involved dancers. Judging from the involvement of the Paris audience -- in a rare occurrence, they didn't wait until the end of the show but responded with rhythmic clapping even at the intermission curtain -- French audiences WANT more of this. I hope and pray that the presenters are listening. There's a tendency here not to recognize anything that's happened in American dance for the past 20 years, or after Bill T. Jones, while at the same time lionizing our pioneers, like Merce, Trisha Brown, and Nikolais. If I have a wish for the Paris presenting-producing-managing cartel it would be that they truly open their eyes and see that with this engagement, the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company has not only delivered Nikolais intact, but sends a dispatch, if you will, from a more contemporary American dance community that is ready to thrill and delight French audiences and that, notwithstanding their dour, studious expressions (laughing at the theater is frowned on here), this audience is crying out to be engaged.

Joan Woodbury & Shirley Ririe's Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company presents the work of Alwin Nikolais, directed by Murray Louis and Alberto del Saz, through Saturday at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt. This Friday at 5 p.m. and Saturday at 3 p.m. the theater hosts a conference on Nikolais's pedagogy with Louis, Carolyn Carlson, Susan Buirge, and a slew of French dancers who studied with the choreographter. Entrance is free but reservations are essential. For more information, please call, in France, 01-42-74-22-77.

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