Nikolais's Beautiful Interpretation of Dance
by Catherine Ng
Some of the most well-known dance works choreographed by the late Alwin Nikolais were featured at the Joyce Theater last Tuesday night. Typically, traditional dance focuses on the dancers rather than the dance, but Nikolais does not concentrate on the emotions of the dancers and more on the totality of dance—the combination of visuals (e.g. costumes and lighting), auditory range (e.g. the hard beats and hypnotizing music), and dance, which uses decentralization as a way to make the dance less personal and more about motion. In many ways, his dances were revolutionary because it touched on the auditory and visual senses without distracting viewers from the dance itself.
The genius in Nikolais’s choreographing was his ability to create a gesamtkunstwerk (aka a total work of art) without drawing away from the dance. He didn’t want dancers to become singular characters, but wanted to rely on the surroundings of individuals to link the sequences of his dances. In many ways, he does this by harmonizing shape, space, time, and motion.
Shape is the outline of the dance, and this was exemplified in “Crucible,” where mirrors were raised from the ground at an angle, and from behind this mirror, the dancers flung out their body parts, forming an amalgamation of body parts and their mirrored reflections to create unique images. Lighting also played an important role in bringing the shapes to life. Certain shapes appeared to look like a row of yellow gaping mouths trying to eat each other, which then distorted themselves into green chromosomal shapes floating freely in the air. One might argue that this aspect of dance was dehumanizing. Contrary to this belief, the dance depended a lot on the human physique in order to form these special effects, thus providing significance to humankind’s positive qualities. Instead, they relied on what Nikolais calls decentralization, in that the dance did not dwell on the individual ego, nor attempted to get their dance across with feeling. Motion also played a role in decentralization, in which the dancers in “Crucible” performed in synchronization as they quickly transition from one move to another. This cohesive unity of movement allowed the audience to focus less on the dancers, and more on the motions of the dance. In this way, Nikolais makes a spectacle through the movements and shapes, and not the emotions, of the dancers.
Instead of relying on individual emotions, the music, in relation to time, played a role in complementing the dancers’ movements and stating the theme of the performance. In “Crucible,” heavy, loud pulses accompanied the eerie, mechanical sounds. One might argue that this was tasteless electronic music, but this “tasteless” music was timed perfectly with the movements of the dancers, despite the complicated meter changes, exemplifying the eeriness and also the beauty of the performance. The use of space was also apparent in this performance, where the dancers filled the dark stage with a row of visual images, creating a beautiful linear symmetry on this expanse of the stage.
At the same time, other visual factors of these dances were not as lavish, and this was done so that dance was the main focus. The costume design, for example, was very simple. Instead of wearing gender-specific and flashy apparel, each dancer dressed in the same plain outfit, beige underwear, and from far away, all of the dancers, either female or male, looked alike. Lighting also played a convenient role in covering the private body parts of the dancers, such as the breasts and genitals, with the plain red stripes making them look more androgynous.
Nikolais unified and simplified certain dance aspects in a way to lessen the focus of the dancers, and furthered exemplified the importance of the dance itself. Motion, rather than emotion, was the main focus. This philosophy of dance was an enjoyable experience, because it opened my eyes to his beautiful interpretation of dance.