The Chatterbox


NDT = Nikolias Dance Theater
HSP = Henry Street Playhouse
MLDC = Murray Louis Dance Company
SM = Stage Manager
TD = Technical Director

Chatterbox 3, “Nikolais at the Joyce”

The Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company,
October 28–November 2, 2003

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Nikolais at the Joyce

Ruth Grauert, NDT & MLDC (Nik’s assistant) ’48–’95 (10/29/03):
     It is 2:00 a.m., and I can’t sleep. Nikolais is keeping me awake. I went to the Joyce to the opening of the Nikolais Dance Theater performance by the Ririe-Woodbury Company, which is why I am still awake and sitting at this computer. I have to get it out.
     This is one performance that would have pleased Nik. The dancers understand motion and movement and stillness. And the stage looked great, the lighting clean and complimentary. Murray Louis made a wise choice in choosing the Ririe-Woodbury Company to perform Nikolais’ dances. He made a choreographic choice to change the ending of Crucible with which I thoroughly agree. The original one really didn’t fit and his new one does. Purists may balk, but...I quote myself...
     The art in revivals rests not in the memory of what was but in the quality of what is. If you are close enough to New York City, get there this week. Could I pick? Sure. If you don’t want me to, stop reading now.
     Some director is a very centered critter. Lythic is now centered, removed from up left and the dancers are balanced in placement. Same is true of the men’s quintet in Mechanical Organ. In this production they are balanced in placement and dead center. Originally the men were a trio and a duet placed up right and at quarter line at center. And the same eye has the men’s duet and the “Doll with the Broken Head” both danced across downstage in the same slot. “Doll” is at a disadvantage following the men. She should be moved upstage. Nothing can be done about the shape of a stage. It is a “sorta” cube. But the eye can be refreshed by directing it from one focal point to another.
     And Noumenon opened in too much light. One sees cloth and as beautiful as it is, it takes away from shape. The overhead spots should be only “suggested” so that the figures seem to move even before they do. Tensile Envolvement was really “candy” and stunning, but like all candy, enough is enough. It needed, maybe less to begin, or change even subtly, so that we could “see.”
     (Now you start reading again.) On the other hand Blank on Blank had the best performance I have ever seen from all aspects. The dancers’ handling of the stasis and disturbance, their contact and reaction, their matter-of-fact sex play, made the dance dance. With Liturgies following, so different in motion configuration, the skill of the dancers was stunning. (Now stop reading.)
     The dancers are all good, which puzzles me. Why were the solos in Tensile so contained? These should shine like jewels in the glittering setting. Directed to be “cool”?
     (Now read.) I had a really wonderful evening. Joan and Shirley, Murray and Tito, you should be very pleased with what you have wrought. Thank you, thank you. It will probably keep me awake for another while, and I shall savor it for a long time.

Carlo Pellegrini, NDT member ’75–’78 (10/29/03):
     Ruth, I had the same reaction. Great synopsis and crits on the dances.
     I was up until 2 a.m. as well, processing, going over the images, trying to make sense of what I had just seen. With the exception of Noumenon, in which I was the extreme stage right bag of three (when did the third bag get dropped and when did the two remaining get moved up and downstage?) and Tensile Involvement, I had never seen the others. Never heard of the others. This was all brand new to me — this was a side of Nik I did not know. How could it be that I could see his choreography in Blank and Blank without the benefit of slides, cyc images, shifting dimensions? I saw Nik choreographing on dancers, not objects on his multi-dimensional canvas.
     This morning I took a walk with a friend who is a former dancer. I had to spill my thoughts and visions of last night’s images to someone who could catch my meanings: the feelings I had as a former performer in Nik’s company, the resistance to comparing my dancing with this group’s, the resistance to judging the quality of their movement, the acceptance that this was a different time and memory plays tricks, the memory of dances that I was in with the visual of seeing it again (and experiencing the counts and the choreography all over again). It’s been an intense 12 hours.
     I have been trying to make sense of the dancer’s quality choices (or maybe it is more about the dancer’s training or about the director’s interpretation). They are certainly a more “skilled” group than our team was (technically, I mean), but I somehow missed the passion. Even in the midst of the quality of movement and technique that Nik hounded us for, he never, not once, reigned us in for bringing passion to our movement. When I think about Suzy doing the Tribe Solo or Gerald and Jim performing the Men’s Duet from Tribe (now in Mechanical Organ) or Suzy in the solos of Tensile, I was waiting to be bowled over. I experienced competence and accomplishment and revival. I also experienced a visceral letting go: the experience I had was not just a memory anymore (there is very little recorded video from our group; video was just coming out and it was for a record only), but the work was back — it is now onstage for all to see — it is a record of work that, up to last night, has only been spoken about for the past 10 years. Even when I told my son about it in years past he would look at me blankly and say, “Cool — gotta go watch MTV — that’s some dancing!”
     I am going to have to go back, sit farther back in the house, and see the show again. It is funny to hear the voices in my head from almost thirty years ago: “Nik, can you choreograph a dance for us without all the lights and props and bags?” He would just laugh. I see now it was a period — it was his period — it was his artistic life path; just like Blank on Blank was another point along his artistic life path. There is so much more inside my head. It will just have to rattle around inside there til it makes sense.
     Even though Nik used to say to me over dinner on occasion that when he passed on he did not want anybody doing his work — that no one would have his sensibilities nor be able to elicit from the dancers the quality he wanted and envisioned — I do believe he would have enjoyed this revival immensely.

Lynn Lesniak Needle (NDT 80s, School Director 80s to closing) (10/29/03):
     The Nikolais evening at the Joyce (Wednesday, October 29) was so polished and elegantly performed.  It was another sold-out evening filled with an appreciative audience, complete with Q&A by Murray Louis after the performance.  About 200 people stayed to hear Murray answer questions for 30 minutes after the concert.  Many of them knew the Playhouse and were fascinated by the revivals.
     What a wonderful evening.  It certainly carries on Nik’s legacy with great integrity.  Everyone should go see the company at the Joyce and give Murray, Shirley, Joan, and Tito a big hug.  The lighting was superb!! 

Virginia Dillon (Laidlaw-Chu), NDT 69–70, Director Children’s Division 75–77 (11/01/03):
     Dear Ruth, I loved your review and . . . the concert last night was amazing! Wow! I truly loved and enjoyed and was amazed by everything I saw. The company was fabulous, individually and as a whole. I had not seen some of those pieces, and really loved them. Nik’s range was so vast, and I’m so grateful to have had the experience of being in his work. Truly, the highlight of my life.

Ruth Grauert (11/04/03):
     Thank you Carlo! It is great to hear from a dancer. I agree about “passion.” I saw “hunger to move” in Blank, but occaasionally. Is this a “cool” decade? Perhaps this is the product of “reconstuction”?
     I know Nik expressed his wish about not having others reconstruct his works; he often said the same to me. But just as artists can give us Bach or Wagner or Monk so that we can enjoy music, so can artists give us Nikolais so that we may enjoy his dance theater. And I remind you, Dance no. 1 had effects up the wazoo.

Pat Mayer, student 1970–1981 (11/05/03):
     Dear Ruth, I had planned on going to the weekend at Hunter but was unable to do so. I heard very good things about it. I saw the Nikolais performance at the Joyce last Sunday evening. The company looked great, were very much on top of the material, and most important of all, it was wonderful to see the work again in this "live" and very lively format.

Dudley Brooks, NDT 1978-1980 (11/13/03):
     I saw the show at Stanford. For me, the excitement was to see the dances again after so many years (except, of course, for “Noumenon” and “Tensile Involvement,” which I had just seen the week before at the Legacy Forum) and, greatest thrill of all, to see dances which I had seen only once (Mechanical Organ), had seen only on tape (Crucible), or had never seen before at all (Lithic and Blank on Blank). It was great to be reminded what real choreography is. (Lithic is fantastic. Thanks for reviving it!)
     It was a shame not to see some of the great multi-media pieces of the 70s. But as Tito said, it’s just not possible to travel with them any more. It was still an entire evening of non-stop pleasure, but if you know Nik’s repertoire, it’s hard not to be greedy!
     A thought: I’d like to see Blank on Blank in practice clothes, to verify that it’s merely the costumes that make it seem somewhat atypical. (Someone in the audience naively asked whether Nik had been tipping his hat to Paul Taylor — someone who evidently had never seen Tower or Scenario, just to name a couple.)
     The dancing seemed excellent to me. I thought they showed sensitivity to the style (and enthusiasm about it), and in particular caught quite well what I remembered of Gerald and Jim in the Tribe/M.O. duet, Rob and Marcia in their M.O. duet, and Jessie in the M.O. solo — despite the very different body types. But I sat quite far back, so perhaps I could not judge the nuances. (When I used to watch the company perform at the Beacon before I joined it, I sat as close as possible.)
     The only dance whose performance disappointed me was Tensile Involvement. It didn’t seem to have the electricity (or should I say elasticity?) that it needed. It felt like “end-of-a-long-show” dancing. But they’re a strong company, and understand the style, and it wasn’t as long as some of Nik’s three-acters, so I don’t know what the reason was.
     And I’ve always preferred the three-person version of Noumenon and the blood-red lights on the yellow bags. Plus, is my memory exaggerating, or did it used to be easier to ignore the bodies inside the bags and focus on the abstract shapes instead? To not be sure, at one point, which were arms and which were legs? Perhaps the old, tougher bags helped the illusion more? (I had the same feeling at the Legacy Conference, despite Gerald and Tim’s strong performances.) Or is it just that, having danced it, I empathize with the person inside?
     When I first joined the company and started learning the repertoire, I was surprised to discover that there were actually more pure movement pieces than there were lighting and costume pieces — and they were some of the most amazingly wonderful choreography I had ever seen. I thought it was a shame that audiences and critics seemed to think that Nik only did “effects” pieces (as if those pieces aren’t wonderful choreography too). That’s why I was especially pleased that the one full-length piece on the show was Mechanical Organ — and the Stanford audience went wild over it! (Of course they raved over everything else, too, but M.O. seemed to be a favorite.) Especially after the Men’s Quintet, the hush before the applause communicated “I’ve never seen anything like that before!”
     In fact, perhaps it was the placement of Tensile Involvement after M.O. that took the edge off of it slightly, for the audience. The other thing that struck me at the concert is something which probably opens up a whole new Chatterbox subject, and relates to the Legacy Forum, namely, how well the choreography comes across independent of the performance. I’ve heard that Nik didn’t want his dances to survive after him, felt that other companies wouldn’t know how to perform them, that they would look dated, etc. I thought he was wrong then, and this concert only makes me feel more strongly that he was wrong. They were excellently performed, and they would certainly lose something if they weren’t. But I really saw choreography which is so strong that it has a life of its own. I’d gripe as much as anyone else if I saw the pieces performed with no understanding of the style. But I think anyone in the audience who didn’t know the style, and even those who do, would still have a great artistic experience. The dances are “classical” enough (in a very specific sense of the word) that they can withstand being “reinterpreted” in the same way that classical music or 19th century ballet is. It will be very interesting to see the upcoming Joffrey movie, and see (1) if they understand the style, and (2) if they don’t, just how much difference it makes — to the general audience, at least.

Ruth Grauert replies (11/13/03):
     I believe that the lack of illusion in Noumenon is due to overlighting. You see the cloth and not the shapes. Nik always put them in an environment of “mysterioso.” With “Tensile” I believe that light plays a part, but more than that, the “performing attitude” just wasn’t present. I found it flat — just a duty performance rather than a hunger to move.

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