Nikolais at the Henry Street Playhouse and the Joyce Theater
Abrons Arts Center (HSP), May 1–2; the Joyce Theater, May 4–9

A Review

Noumenon Mobilus, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company
Photo: Brent Herridge

How does one begin? Dance theater does not exist in the “steps.” Whatever communication there is exists in the embodiment of those steps. If I reach out my hand to you, you somehow know if I am glad to greet you, or if I am simply adhering to cultural formula. My intent inhabits the gesture.

I find myself referring to the creative time-line when I ponder the success (or lack thereof) of the re-creations we saw Saturday night (May 1 performance). Noumenon Mobilus was created in 1953. At that time Nik sought a vehicle wherein dancers could concentrate on the content of the work without any other consideration. Here the flow of shape is it. For the performer, encased in an envelop, shape is inescapable. The shape and flow of shape is either right or wrong and there is no further consideration. It works in constant transmission from decade to decade because of the defined, inescapable intent.

Tensile Involvement (1955), which was developed from a 1953 image,becomes more complicated. The image is motion, vibrating motion, made visible with the elastic properties, and shape in space that the visible ribbons make. The dancer alternately takes on the energy of the material and then contains the shape it makes. The young dancers of the Abrons Art Center Dance Ensemble fulfilled this image with verve.

Kaleidoscope (1956) represents a further exploration into abstract idea in which Nikolais worked with “off-balance” motion. In “Discs” dancers are provided with a base that allows for leaning to a point beyond the usual reach. In performance the dancers must go to the limit of this lean; they must make the viewer feel this unbalance. This company did not.

Tensile Involvement, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company
Photo: Brent Herridge
(I will not discuss “Pole” as the dance I saw in no way was the dance Nikolais composed. I advise that it not be presented again until the choreography can be resurrected.) “Straps” fared better; the only possible improvement of kinetic communication would lie in the dancers’ further understanding that off balance is the message. The performance of “Clothes” that was presented was a development of the original work that Nikolais himself presented many years later (in the 1980s). That was almost fun, for only occasionally did the performers forget that they were bigger-than-life caricatures. Imago (1963) is sometimes concerned with time as a continuum, rather than a metered beat. While the accompaniment cues the motion, the performance depends upon the dancer projecting the breadth of holds and the snap of breaks. This seemed not to have been taken into consideration, resulting in a flat performance.

Every work that Nikolais himself presented was mounted with fine tuning. Light values were played to make visible, not the bare fact of doing but the intent of the art work. Light can be made to increase the play of shapes, the dazzle of moving elastics, and the off balance of lean. In this production light was used, not as a partner to the aesthetics, but rather as a utility—the way we light our offices or garages. This is not nikolais!!

Sure I’m tough, hard on those who have worked so hard to make this concert. However, I feel that those who would reproduce art must take the time to get into the skin of the artist.

Imago “Mantis,” Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company
Photo: Fred Hayes

And now on to the Joyce (May 4, 2010 performance):

This was glorious Dance for three-quarters of the program. And I learned what the Henry Street performance problems were.

Here the Company presented four different ballets. Tensile Involvement (1955), which was performed well, is a go-go driving motion dance. It was performed with the vim and vigor that it requires. And the lighting was such that it would dazzle even the sleeping spectator. This was followed by Liturgies (1985). This ballet is a restatement of images from former works, all of them motion oriented. Crucible (1985) requires unique staging, motion memory, and a sense of humor. All of these ballets were performed with such hunger to move that they could push the sleepiest spectator into wiggling in response. They were lit with an eye to supporting the intent of the motion.

And I loved every minute of them.

Then came Tower (1963), and I fell from my spectator high with a thud. It seemed just running around with scaffold pieces. The episodes were indistinguishable from one another. The lighting was flat.

And I had to ask why. Why are these dancers so great in some dances and so flat in others? Answer: When they need to bring something other than the rush of moving to the piece, they fall short. Tower, Imago, and Kaleidoscope all have a motion score that is based on premises other than go go go.

Just as Imago needs the dancer to feel time, rather than to count it, and Kaleidoscope requires the dancers to sense and use their “unbalance,” so Tower needs an actor’s feel for timing and a director’s sense of theater.

This is a good company of dancers, in many ways capable of carrying the Nikolais legacy. However, they need to inform their bodies of the distinguishing elements of the Nikolais aesthetic, with decentralization, gravity, with time/space as a continuum, with shape as it forms motion and vice versa. A hop is not a hop: it is an experience in gravity, verticality, and timing; of shape as the body changes in form; and of space as it is consumed and projected. It is the sound on the floor and the taste of the air. This is Dance.

—Ruth Grauert, May 2, 2010