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Ririe-Woodbury and Miller Celebrate Nikolais Legacy with Immersive Dance Experiences

By Karen Anne Webb
Dance Review:
Ririe-Woodbury and Bebe Miller Dance Company
Thursday, Sept. 22, 2006
Rose Wagner Center
Salt Lake City
Thursday, Sept. 22, 2006
Browning Center

Dance had a busy four days beginning Sept. 22 as both the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company and the Bebe Miller Company took center stage (at, respectively, the Rose Wagner Center in Salt Lake City and the Browning Center in Ogden). The works presented share commonalities beyond both being works of dance-theater, suggesting a lovely sort of continuity in the modern dance world—a handing of the baton from one generation to the next.

RWDC's program, dedicated to the preservation of the works of Alwin Nikolais, is an outgrowth, in part, of Nik's collaboration with company founders Shirley Ririe and Joan Woodbury. Nik handed on his company's legacy to friend and collaborator Murray Louis. Bebe Miller studied with Lewis for nine years beginning at age three. Perhaps the process is less one of passing a baton (or a legacy) than planting a tree that, like the Holy Thorn continues to flower and spread its branches outward down the years.

RWDC's newly-acquired work is Nik's "Tent." It might have been the work for which the term "visual feast" was created. If you can imagine the intricate, beautiful projections used in his "Crucible," then multiply their grandeur and complexity by an order of magnitude or so, then imagine those projections cast against not just bodies but a full-scale backcloth, the dancers and a fabulous flowing drape grander than the one Doris Humphrey used for her "Soaring."

Of course, this still leaves out the integration of Nik's lights, music, movement and costumes. I sometimes like to see reprises of his works like "Tensile Involvement" and "Noumenon Mobilis," also on this bill, just to bask in the glow of his lighting effects. Even though true musique concréte is not my thing (and there's quite a bit of it in "Imago," the other piece on the bill), it's hard to divorce Nik's movement from Nik's music. I kept trying to picture the rubbery, loose-limbed male quintet of "Imago" being danced to, say, Satie's "Gymnopédies." While it certainly would have been easier on the ears, it just wouldn't have been right. Nik dealt in total environments, and you can't really divorce one part from the whole. You can feel your soul elevated by the sheer genius of a man who constructed every last detail of his pieces even if your personal aesthetic is at odds with some of those details.

The dancers, as writers all over this country and Europe have commented, do a remarkable job with Nik's work. The multifarious tent of the title, which goes from canopy to floor to window frame to drape and back, at times seem to serve a purpose similar to the crashing curtain in William Forsythe's "Artifact II:" for several of the early movements, it seems to be separating one eon from the next as the dancers go, as in "Crucible," from single-celled organisms to more complex forms of life.

"Tent" has some of Nik's most elaborate dance movement, although the pyrotechnics have the ephemeral quality of fireworks: this is largely an ensemble work where the star is the entire cast. That said, frequently in the spotlight was Caine Keenan, whose body blends a Gumby-like agility with core strength and a beautifully pure, clean line. Ditto Liberty Valentine, an alum who now serves as one of the supplemental dancers on the Nik programs. Her dramatic strength is such that all she needs to do is walk onstage for you to notice her.

Up at the Browning Center, Bebe Miller's company was presenting her new "Landing/Place," which just netted Miller her second Bessie award. Deservedly! Like "Tent," "Landing/Place" turns the stage into a total environment where movement blends with music, visuals, and the spoken word.

For this particular work, Miller's big innovation was the integration of motion capture technology. Video artist Maya Ciarrocchi and animation artist Vita Berezina-Blackburn went in a totally different direction than the folks from WETA who turned actor Andy Serkis into Gollum. In fact, if you didn't know it was the same technology, you might never put the two together. Where WETA did literal motion capture to create a computer-generated humanoid (or hobbit-oid) figure, Ciarrocchi and Berezina-Blackburn took captures of the dancers dancing and turned them into utterly imaginative flights of fancy: birds, clouds, buildings, figures that might be DNA molecules or constellations, others that might be axons and dendrites or snowflakes or stars drifting in space.

The animations get projected on two scrims, one downstage left, the other upstage roughly center. (The one caveat I would make for watching this production is to sit centrally or to house left to keep the projections from overlapping from your perspective.) Miller in an interview said that technology is only of value if you have a use for it, and she remained true to this vision. The animations, though striking, integrate very seamlessly into the long-format work so they become an essential part of the mix rather than overpowering the other elements. On the other hand, they are so beautiful, you could sit and watch just them for hours. My nine-year-old son's comment when the curtain rose on projected image of blowing window curtains with birds flying through the virtual sky was "Awesome!"

And that pretty much sums up the piece. Inspired by a sense of disconnection after a trip to Eritrea, Miller has created a piece about disconnection relative to the journey of life. A bit of spoken text attempts to translate some of the opening passages of The Divine Comedy, in which the narrator finds himself lost in a foggy wood while traveling; another snippet of Miller's own text asks if, once we set our course, can we then shift gears and change direction? Two tiny prop houses figure little into the choreography but serve as an every-present reminder of home and how distant it can seem.

The range of both music and movement in the piece is wide: mellow ambient jazz alternates with a variety of percussive sections. Movement is somber, joyous, reflective, manic. Albert Mathias plays it all live onstage. His roots are in percussion, and certainly his rhythms are outstanding, but beautiful, too, are moments of quiet transition on a lateral slide guitar and his synthesizer work.

Miller says her typical commissions are for short-format works so it is unusual to see a long-format work like this done by another company. The expense notwithstanding, it would be difficult to envision this piece done by five other dancers. It's not just that the work is somewhat collaborative, it's that the work seems to live in the bodies—in the "dance intelligence," if you will—of these five extraordinary individuals. Mature individuals all, they project a psychological weight that helps to drive the piece. They move as a harmonious unit without sacrificing their individuality. And at some moments—well, there's a difference between truly focusing left and merely looking left. I remember two moments that featured dancer Jeanine Durning, one where she focuses on Mathias, one where she stands in a deep second position plié holding the prop house in one hand and directing her focus towards it. Both stay in my mind because her focus was so profound, her line and energy so pure that those moments of stillness captivated as much as any movement.



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