Monday, September 29, 2008

TOWERing genius.

For the most part, I don’t do favorites. Why should I be forced to choose when there are so many things to like? “Who’s your favorite this?” “What’s your favorite that?” I don’t know the answers. But I’ve gone gaga for Alwin Nikolais. So I will commit to this. My favorite choreographer is Alwin Nikolais. And lucky for me, somehow, someway, Salt Lake City is a Mecca for Nikolais’ addictive works.

I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but a few years ago Ririe-Woodbury was designated as the official re-creator of Nikolais’ works. And it’s paid off for the dance company. Early in the new century, the New York Times chose Ririe-Woodbury’s first all-Nikolais program as one of the ten best performances of the year. That’s the New York Times choosing a performance from a small modern dance company in Salt Lake City as one of the ten best. How did that happen?

Now Ririe-Woodbury is back with another all-Nicolais performance. The evening started with Crucible. This was the third time I’ve seen this work and you haven’t experienced dance until you’ve been through the Crucible. It involves a giant mirror and various body parts reflected in said mirror. It’s genius. I’ve seen very few works of art that are this good. All those multi-million dollar paintings from the same period have nothing on this.

And there was plenty more to love. Tensile Movement is the Alwin Nikolais work I’ve seen more than any other. And no matter how often I see it, it still inspires. Let’s face it, tension is sexy. Like most great artists, Nikolais has themes that appear constantly in his works. Tension is one of his best. Tensile Movement is all about tension. But you also see the theme of tension in several movements from Liturgies. Take Reliquary. It features a women in a lacquered mask tied with stretchy bands to two men. And then the company danced Celebrants, where the performers forced themselves into strange silhouettes that were confined and restricted. It all made for a performance that feels like a precursor to Mathew Barney.

Another Nikolais theme is reflection. It’s most obvious in Crucible. But you also see it in several movements of Liturgies and Tensile Movement. Once again, Nikolais seems to have influenced visual artists after him. Like Jeff Koons’ polished stainless steel works. Or the slick artistry of Anish Kapoor. Even the works of Josiah McElheny. Alwin is a visionary who set the stage for art that followed. And don’t get me started on how Nikolais may have influenced pop culture from Star Trek to Cirque du Soleil.

Tower was the newest work in Ririe-Woodbury’s Nikolais quiver. I liked its 60s, go for broke, performance-art feel. But (and I’ve complained about this before) asking dancers to speak is almost always a mistake. The Ririe-Woobury dancers did better than most. Still, this wasn’t Mr. Nikolais’ best. But even his less-than-best stuff is dang good.

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