Dance seen as only one element in a Nikolais performance

There's no one who makes dances like Alwin Nikolais, although he's trained many choreographers who use a similar movement style. The program for the December-through-New Year's run at the Joyce Theater announces simply Nikolais, with the credit: ``Choreography, Costume and Lighting Designs, Sound Scores and Direction by Alwin Nikolais.''

Nikolais's multiple talents have produced a delightful theater of sounds, color, and moving designs in which dance is only one element, and perhaps not the most highly developed of them. A Nikolais performance is made up of short divertissements, each with a different look or device, which is examined and exploited for all its possible effects.

``Noumenon'' (1953), the oldest piece on the program I saw, presents three figures totally enclosed in sacks of stretchy metallic cloth. Almost imprisoned by the costumes, the figures balance and tilt on benches, making blobby shapes that keep changing as they push their arms or legs against the cloth to stabilize themselves. In ``Count Down'' (1979), they manipulate large scrolls of white paperlike material, which first appear as columns with gorgeous decorative slides projeced on them. Later the columns begin to scoot across the stage (dancers are inside, of course). The dancers appear and disappear from behind the scrolls, and finally, by some trickery, they vanish altogether as the props topple over and lie in a heap on the floor.

Except for apocalyptic endings like this, where he reveals the sticks and stones beneath his own illusions, Nikolais's dances don't have messages and they don't have much compositional development. ``Contact,'' having its New York premi`ere, is a suite of dances apparently held together by nothing more thematic than the Lycra bodysuits the 10 dancers wear. In the first section they're divided into two tight sculptural groups on either side of the stage. The groups move through identical poses, the dancers alternately supporting themselves on different combinations of hands and feet and curving their bodies around the others in their group. Even the colors of their costumes match, so you might be looking at an optical peculiarity: the same image separated in space.

In a solo section, Ra'ul Trujillo is seated on the floor. Balancing on his coccyx, he reaches out, around, above his body, sometimes looking like a contortionist as he extends one leg straight up behind his shoulder. Later Timothy Harling and James Murphy do a side-by-side duet where they indicate the shuffling comradeliness of a vaudeville soft-shoe dance, but don't do any real soft-shoe steps.

When Nikolais features his dancers, as in ``Study of the Human Figure'' (1983), I find him least interesting. Probably because so much of his training is aimed at making the dancers the wonderful manipulators of shape, light, and elasticity, that their range in the more typical virtuosities of dance is smaller. There's little step vocabulary, the phrasing is usually very metrical, and they move mostly two dimensionally in space. Though this dance is often about partnering, it seems the opposite of sensual, as the dancers use each other almost as structures for their angular, tensile shapemaking.

Nikolais is at his most enjoyable in pieces like ``Video Game'' (1984), where the dancers, or computerized skeletal representations of them, materialize out of nowhere, sometimes fractured and in places where they shouldn't logically be. Before the dance is over, the audience understands the trick - they have designs on the front of their leotards, black on the back, and special ultraviolet light picks up the luminescent green, blue, and orange when they turn or duck out from behind black screens. But even when you know how he does it, you can be surprised by Nikolais's twists of fantasy.

``Study of the Human Figure'' has a computer-generated score that incorporates words, and at the end of the dance a robotlike voice says, ``My anatomy - is not built - to accompany - my - dreams.'' That's as good an explanation as any for Nikolais's theater and its appeal.

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