Utah’s acclaimed Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company will present “Nikolais Dance Theatre,” an evening-length collection of visionary multimedia works that transform dance into a visual and kinetic art. The show, a homage to innovative dancer Alwin Nikolais, begins at 8 p.m. Nov. 2 and 3 as part of Edison Theatre’s OVATIONS! Series.
Born in 1910 in Southington, Conn., Nikolais initially studied piano and began performing as a teenager, accompanying silent films as well as local dance classes. As a student at Bennington College, he began studying dance with Martha Graham and Hanya Holm, among others, and in 1935 was appointed director of the Hartford Parks Marionette Theatre.
In 1937 he opened his own dance studio and in 1940 received his first commission, for the ballet “Eight Column Line.” Following a stint in the Army during World War II, Nikolais relocated to New York City and in 1948 founded the Playhouse Dance Company, later renamed the Nikolais Dance Theatre.
In 1949, Nikolais met a pair of notable young dancers — Murray Louis and Joan Woodbury — while teaching a summer workshop. Both were deeply influenced by Nikolais’ ideas about “decentralization,” in which costume, lighting and projected images are used to shift attention away from individual dancers in favor of the production’s overall effect. Louis soon joined Nikolais’ company as a soloist and later became a co-founder of The Nikolais-Louis Foundation for Dance, an umbrella organization that included a school as well as the Nikolais Dance Theatre and the Murray Louis Dance Company.
Woodbury, meanwhile, met Shirley Ririe, another Nikolais pupil, in 1952. The two became fast friends and choreographed their first work together, about a pair of Vaudeville performers. They also began to share teaching duties at the University of Utah and, in the early 1960s, invited Nikolais and Louis to spend a summer working with students.
“I think it was great luck that Nik found these two ladies and their summer sessions, for they were a sounding board for his budding philosophy on teaching creative dance and composition,” Louis told Dance Magazine in 2003. “The classes were wildly productive.”
At Nikolais’ suggestion, Ririe and Woodbury launched the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company in 1964, with a repertoire of original works as well as pieces given to them by Nikolais and Louis. Following Nikolais’ death in 1993, the Nikolais-Louis Foundation began to phase out its two companies, and in 2002 Louis selected Ririe-Woodbury Dance to preserve and present Nikolais’ works, thus marking the first time an existing U.S. company has absorbed the collection of a past master.
“Nikolais Dance Theatre” features 10 dancers performing many of Nikolais’ most influential works. These include his famous “Tensile Involvement,” in which the entire company moves through and among a large grid of elastic bands. Also on the program are “Crucible,” “Lythic,” “Blank on Blank,” “Liturgies ‘Finale,'” “Noumenon Mobilus,” “Mechanical Organ,” “Pond,” “Tent” and “Imago: The City Curious.”
Nikolais Dance Theatre is directed by Louis and Alberto del Saz, co-director of The Nikolais-Louis Foundation. Earlier this fall, del Saz served as a visiting artist in the Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences’ Dance Program.
While on campus, he led a series of master classes and set choreography for “Tensile Involvement,” which also will be performed Nov. 30-Dec. 2 as part of rEvolutions, the 2007 Dance Theatre concert.
Tickets for “Nikolais Dance Theatre” are $30; $25 for seniors, faculty and staff; and $18 for students and children. Tickets are available at the Edison Theatre Box Office and through all MetroTix outlets. For more information, call 935-6543 or visit edisontheatre.wustl.edu.