Nikolais troupe's wizardry: the ultimate video game, but more is needed

Alwin Nikolais is one of America's veteran dancemakers. He's been in the business for some 35 years now and has made well over a hundred dances.

In a field where survival is no small achievement, Nikolais has managed to keep his dancers dancing - across the United States and around the globe. The Nikolais Dance Theater has scored huge success in Europe, and judging from recent audience response at the New York City Center, he is still endearing to old friends and is winning many new ones. (The company performs in Wilmington, Del., tonight through Saturday; in Austin, Texas, Nov. 4-6; in San Francisco on Nov. 7; in Santa Monica, Calif., on Nov. 9; and in Fort Worth, Texas, Nov. 10-12 .)

But I cast a dissenting vote against the choreographer who has often been called a theatrical wizard par excellence. It might be more accurate to say that Nikolais is more interested in wizardry than any other choreographer. The repertory at the City Center showed us that wizardry in all its aspects.

In ''Noumenon,'' the dancers are completely encased in sheaths. All we see are strange shapes sitting on stools, metamorphosing before our eyes into strange animals and even stranger shapes.

In ''Tensile Movement'' the cast manipulates a cat's cradle of streamers pulled tautly across the stage. Will they become hopelessly entangled? No. Law and order prevail. And in a piece just now receiving its New York premiere, the dancers sit on low, moving platforms and sway idly within a sun-dappled environment. They could be plankton out for a Sunday swim and the dance could be called ''Pond'' - which, in fact, it is.

All these plays on light, shape, and metamorphosis might be visually dazzling for the newcomer, but they are spectacularly tiresome for the initiated.

In a sense, it's precisely their artistic presentation that robs the tricks of their staying power. How much bolder the act, and more magical, too, when the guy just walks out onto a bare stage and pulls the rabbit out of the hat. True that he's not creating a magical environment the way Nikolais does, but Nikolais's environment is as much gaudy as it is magical. It's disco-lighting on a sophisticated level. Eye-catching graphics surpass the hard sheen of the advertising age.

Worst of all, the music, most often composed by Nikolais himself, is on a level with Hollywood sci-fi. Since dance - and even the most humble magic acts - are essentially rhythmic activities, it's that Nikolaisian tum-tum-tum which most seriously injures the enterprise. While there's a case for saying that Nikolais is superb entertainment for children, the music reduces the experience to mere juvenilia.

The one complaint commonly leveled against Nikolais is that he dehumanizes dancers by hiding them in the kind of streamers, sheaths, and strobe lights described here. But he also dehumanizes them in ''magic''-free dances such as ''The Mechanical Organ I,'' also in this season's repertory.

Even when the dancers are not performing dehumanized roles, they move like hollow dolls. They have no weight, no internally felt impulse to move. They are as light as feathers, and have that much impact, too. They move mindlessly like figures in a video game, and being virtuosos they can do the same tricks as video people: stop on a dime, go all squiggly, turn square corners without batting a muscle.

The Nikolais Dance Theater is the ultimate video game, but Nikolais can take pleasure in knowing that he thought of it first. Some of the dances in the current season date from 1953.

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