When choreographer Alwin Nikolais was accorded Kennedy Center Honors in 1987, theater legend Joseph Papp called him "a revolutionary who was engaged in multimedia long before the term was coined."
Nikolais' startling conflations of pulsating lights, electronic music, colorful props and abstract dance were considered revolutionary when he began creating them in mid-20th-century New York City.
It was a time of artistic exploration, and the strange beauty of "Nik's" dance-theater shows distilled the essence of the psychedelic '60s and their flanking decades. Nikolais' creative vision remained a force in the modern-dance world, especially in France, until his death in 1993. Its inspiration can still be traced in the work of performance companies such as MOMIX, Pilobolus, Blue Man Group and Cirque du Soleil.
Bringing Nik's work home • For the past seven years, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company has lovingly reconstructed and performed Nikolais' historic ballets for a worldwide audience, while also pursuing the company's principal mission of creating and performing new contemporary dance works.
It has been just over 100 years since Nikolais' birth in Connecticut, an event celebrated by Ririe-Woodbury with a two-year world tour of his works. Now the show, which includes two works new to Utah audiences, will be seen in the professional dance company's home state.
Last week, nine dancers rehearsed Nikolais' "Temple" at Salt Lake City's Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, where the program will be performed. The simmering percussion and electronic noises of Nikolais' self-composed score still evoke an aura of avant-garde modernism. His choreography is whimsical, cheeky and surprisingly fresh.
Former Nikolais dancer Alberto "Tito" Del Saz presided over the rehearsal, correcting and encouraging three trios of dancers to create a series of shape-shifting pyramids using benches and swivel stools as props.
The choreography is intriguing on its own, but is only one element of Nikolais' vision, Woodbury said. Color-banded leotards (re-created by Ballet West costume director David Huevel) under inventive stage lighting form ever-changing patterns through the movements of the dancers. The combined result is eye-popping.
Still fresh after all these years • "Nik was a master of illusion," said R-W co-founder Joan Woodbury, who studied with Nikolais as a young dancer, and later taught beside him. "He knew how to use time, shape, metaphor and illusion to get a vision of something above and beyond what the dancers are doing."
"Temple's" rhythmic manipulation of color and light tricks the eye, making the audience see things that aren't there. "It might look simple, but it is so confusing and complicated to learn," Woodbury said. "The dancers are counting like crazy. Every single gesture is totally detailed."
When audiences see Nikolais' work for the first time, people are surprised to learn that the pieces are around a half-century old.
"They are all in awe at how contemporary the work is, and how accessible," said Del Saz, who represents the Nikolais/Louis Foundation for Dance. "You don't have to have any kind of pre-meditated ideas to experience this. It's about stimulating the imagination of the viewers, and about how the dance invites you into this magical world. You become one with the dance even though you are sitting in a chair."
Dollars and sense of the tour • During the past seven years, Ririe-Woodbury's reconstructions of Nikolais' choreography have received acclaim at Scotland's Edinburgh International Festival, the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris and the Joyce Theatre in New York City, and other audiences throughout the United States and Europe. It's a fitting tribute to the master choreographer, and it seems the favor is being returned.
Revenue from the Nikolais tour has been critical to Ririe-Woodbury's financial health as years of economic turmoil have challenged arts groups across the world.
"In the past three years, we would have been in the red if we didn't have the tour," said Jena Woodbury, associate managing director. "We are trying to get our income from our own touring repertory up so as not to be so reliant on the Nikolais income. But isn't that a lovely problem to have? We consider ourselves incredibly fortunate."
Ririe-Woodbury does Nikolais
What • Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company brings its "Alwin Nikolais Centennial" program home to Utah, after presenting the program on tour in the U.S. and Europe. The program concludes a two-year celebration of the modern-dance pioneer's birth in 1910. The full evening of Nikolais works includes "Kaleidoscope" and "Temple."
When • Shows are April 21-23 at 7:30 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on April 23
Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center's Jeanné Wagner Theatre, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.
Tickets • $30; $15 for students and seniors; $20 each for groups of six or more; at 801-355-ARTS or www.arttix.org.
About Alwin Nikolais
Born • Nov. 25, 1910, in Southington, Conn.
Died • May 8, 1993, in France; buried at Pére Lachaise cemetery, Paris
Mentors • Modern-dance legends Hanya Holm, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman.
Career • As director of New York City's Henry Street Playhouse, developed a multimedia approach to dance theater that continues to influence the performance arts.
The French connection • A 1968 performance in Paris brought world acclaim. In 1978, the French government invited Nikolais to establish the Centre Nationale de la Danse Contemporaine in Angers, France.
The Utah connection • Nikolais worked separately with Joan Woodbury and Shirley Ririe around 1950. The two Utah dancers connected because of a shared aesthetic he inspired, and then formed Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. It's the only professional dance company that has been licensed to perform a full evening of ballets by Nikolais since his death 18 years ago.
Accolades • National Medal of the Arts; Kennedy Center Honors; Grande Medaille de Vermeille de la Ville de Paris; knight of France's Legion of Honor.
Nik nicknames • "Patriarch of French Modern Dance," "Father of Multimedia," "Merlin of Dance."
More info • Visit the Nikolais Louis Foundation for Dance at www.nikolaislouis.org