WHEN YOU FIRST see Nikolais Dance Theater, you're determined to see through the troupe's stunts. The company, appearing at Brandeis this past weekend, stages a magic lantern show: one minute the proscenium is an expanse of bold color stripes, the next a field of white pin-points of light. Even when you remind yourself that it's all stagecraft, you're still astounded--it's hard to believe that one man, Alvin Nikolais, could choreograph score, costume and light such intricate theater works.
Nikolais creates dances with complex visual surfaces. To view one of his works a second time, it seems, wouldn't lead you more deeply into the piece, only let you take in more of its shell. Simply-structured choreography underlies Nikolais's dazzling surfaces. In Sanctum the eye is stunned by a painter's palette of light flickering over living massed forms--dancers bound in giant loops of fabric. Here Nikolais uses group unison, one of the most basic patterns in choreography. He matches simple movement phrases with blocks of time. Each dancer executes a phrase at the moment he senses is right, then proceeds to the next planned action.
Nikolais constructs a work by stacking image on image, punctuating them with black-outs and pauses, until he synthesizes an intensity and at that high pitch ends the piece. His music scores work in the same way: a section of steady pulsing is followed by a roaring din and then perhaps a split-second of splintering tones. Nikolais's scores don't stand on their own as compositions for electronic instruments, yet they work well for his theater.
Nikolais's choreography becomes more involved at times when he de-emphasizes the light and slide show. (Some of his dances fuse light and movement at their most essential level; others use costume and light traditionally, as secondary arts.) Somniloquy, an all-dance duet, turns Suzanne McDermott and Gerald Otte into fast-moving comic caricatures, Nikolais's way of treating a potentially sexual situation. He has the couple move with such highly-charged energy that they forget their partner is of the opposite sex. At these times Nikolais emphasizes traces of movement rather than the precise shapes of movements. The dancer thinks only of getting as quickly as possible to the next phrase, leaving all that's behind dangling.
Nikolais tends to define the dancer as an energy-generator--as a friend said, "an electronic bleep." He views dancers as dimensional forms extending vertically, horizontally and diagonally in space, signposts for its immensity, variables in a world governed by laws of time and motion. The dancer is also an object in its own right for Nikolais, an immobile sculptural form no longer calling attention to the dimensions of space but to its own three-dimensionality. Noumenon takes off from this point, exploring how body-enveloping stretch material can transform the dancer into a frozen form in space. Here three dancers become towering Egyptian mummies. At the last moment, they clutch their necks, their features for the first time screaming through the veils.
It's the sort of moment you wait for in Nikolais: when the dancer is not a transmittor of energy and dimension, not an object, but a human being--or, more accurately, a performer, since Nikolais knows that on the stage one is never oneself.
Cross-Fade,, one of Nikolais's genuinely mixed-media works, touches on man's egoism, and the individualist's haughtiness and vanity. The work begins as one dancer poses with pelvis thrust forward, one dancer poses with pelvis thrust forward, one hand positioned smugly behind his head. His photograph and then a larger-than-life silhouettte is thrown on the scrim. More and bigger photographs follow as other dancers join in, all lit by a bronze glow, enshrining them as perfect Renaissance nudes.
Scenario teases out the human in the same way, but with smaller-than life, stylized projections of the dancers--non-skeletons, Klee-like stick figures. The dancers improvise as a group with the sounds of arguing-laughing and laughing-crying. They're cut short again and again as striking visual patterns of light and color distort their figures beyond recognition. They become once more mere props in a theatrical fantasy.
Nikolais's works seem to shove his company members to the side. He doesn't let his dancers become too human, but neither will he, nor can he, obliterate their humanness. At times he lets human figures scuttle across the stage, marring the abstract canvas, interrupting the kaleidoscope, yet filling in what's humorous and profound in his work.