At first glance, the reconstruction of Alwin Nikolais’ masterpiece Kaleidoscope Suite more closely resembles a Pixar animated chess game than a dance rehearsal. Dancers scuffle around the studio, lips pursed, cheeks sucked in, heads angled right, then suddenly left. Counts soar beyond the usual “5, 6, 7, 8” to “. . . 48, 49,” and back to “1, 2.” The precision movements, layered with lights, props, electronic music and costumes, will evolve into a mystical, theatrical, onstage environment. But don’t mistake this for another Cirque du Soleil or Blue Man Group. Beyond the spectacle of the stage, Nikolais’ deeply held philosophy is about qualitative movement.
Salt Lake City’s Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company will perform Kaleidoscope Suite as part of Nikolais’ 100th birthday celebration. The company has partnered with the Nikolais/Louis Foundation for Dance, New York City, on a two-year, two-continent centennial tour that began in October and covers six cities in France, towns across the U.S. and an eight-night run in New York City. But this tour is as much about educating students and audiences as it is about the live performances.
“Everything Nik did helped dancers learn how to perform,” RW company co-founder Joan Woodbury says. “He taught how to place your energy inside the material so that you can fulfill it. It makes dancers better in everything they do.”
Woodbury and RW’s other co-founder, Shirley Ririe, began a lifelong connection with Nikolais in 1949 that thrives in spirit through Alberto del Saz, artistic director for the Nikolais/Louis Foundation. Del Saz, who is also artistic director for the centennial performances and workshops, moved from his home in Spain to NYC in 1983 to become a soloist with Nikolais Dance Theatre two years later. Ririe, Woodbury and del Saz’s mutual belief in the benefits of the Nikolais philosophy is as strong today as it was decades ago.
Nikolais’ work is based on a philosophy, not a style or technique. Del Saz explains that when choreographers base work on style, “the costumes and lighting change, but the essence of the movement is the same. After two hours, it becomes very repetitious.” Nikolais used the term “motion” rather than “movement,” del Saz says. “Movement is the pure locomotion of the body from one point to another in space. Motion is the quality of the movement. The theatrical environment was the common denominator in Nik’s works, but each piece presents a completely new challenge for the dancers to express different qualitative movement.”
The strong focus for the Alwin Nikolais centennial tour is to teach dancers about those subtle differences, as well as to preserve Nikolais’ important place in dance history. In each city, del Saz will teach master classes and workshops to university, conservatory and art school students. A fully produced performance will complete each stop, and in some locales the professional RW dancers will perform with and for the students. The two organizations are joining forces to ensure that Nikolais’ philosophy is passed on. “Nik taught that the job of a dancer is to help the audience experience ‘it’ [the work], not ‘you,’” Woodbury says. “It was, and is, egoless.”
For a schedule of performances, see: www.ririewoodbury.com. DT
Kathy Adams is dance critic for the Salt Lake Tribune and has written about dance for Dance Magazine and Salt Lake Magazine. Photo by Fred Hayes, courtesy of Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company