The capacity for abstract thought is a distinguishing feature of human beings , but it's the central definition of artists. Making the specific general, breaking down, distorting, and then putting together again in a new way is what artists do. The choreographer Alwin Nikolais has just composed an interesting essay about this in the form of a dance called "Five Masks" -- one of several premieres recently presented by the Nikolais Dance Theater at the New York City Center.
"Five Masks" is a suite of five solos, each depicting an emotion such as sadness or wonderment. Before the dancer begins to illustrate how these emotions are translatable into physical gestures and rhythms, a series of slide projections flashes on the stage as an introduction to each solo. The first is a picture of the face of a specific dancer, Murray Louis. In the second slide, the expression on his face is distorted and intensified through lighting and graphic design, so that the particulars of his features are almost unrecognizable. The final slide shows the image of a mask, a work of art reflecting in the most abstract way possible the emotion about to be danced. Because the slides flow into each other without a break, they suggest quite literally the evolutionary process by which real life becomes art life.
As one might expect, the solos that Nikolais made for Louis try to abstract emotion just as the maskmakers have. Thus, the sense of wonderment is expressed not through goggle eyes but through the dancer's pleasure in weaving his arms delicately and in sensuous shapes, as if to suggest the extraordinary subtlety of nature and our own bodies. We perceive the feeling of sadness through slight quickening and sags in Louis's back. In the final dance, Louis recapitulates all the themes of the preceding sections and then sits in front of a light, which beams the image of a mask on his face. The dancer is a work of art and an artist, too, Nikolais is suggesting.
Curiously, Nikolais has sometimes been accused of taking abstraction so far as to dehumanize his dancers. This certainly isn't true of "Five Masks," for better or worse. For better, it gives a resounding personal triumph to Louis, who appears as guest artist with Nikolais this season, so that he performs the role created especially for him. On the negative side, sometimes the choreography is not abstract enough, being too literal a representation of emotion.
Be that as it may, the issue of abstraction does not really get at the good and less good qualities of Nikolais's work. In "Arporisms," for example, the dancers are encased in a tube of cloth -- that is, reduced to nothing but line and shape. Yet how enchanting and magical the shapes they make! In the two other new works this season, "The Mechanical Organ" and "Talisman," he exposes the dancers in full flesh and blood, but the dances are as thin as "Arporisms" is rich. Both find Nikolais in a doggedly twitchy mood. It's not that they're overly concerned with body line and pattern. It's that you can't see the forest because the trees won't stop hopping aro und.