For nearly 50 years, Joan Woodbury has been dancing, explaining and promoting the work of modern dance pioneer Alwin Nikolais.
Nikolais, who was born in 1910 and died in 1993, is the choreographer and impresario recognized as the founder of multimedia dance, drawing upon his experience as a puppeteer and a pianist for silent movies.
At age 22, Woodbury met and studied with Nikolais, later returning home to Utah where she taught his technique at the University of Utah. Her friend and colleague, Shirley Ririe, also studied with Nikolais. When Woodbury and Ririe founded their Salt Lake City dance company in 1964, they continued to promote his legacy.
“He challenged me as a choreographer to think more deeply, to work poetically, and to use the technology at hand — which at that time was rear-screen projectors and slide projectors — in my own work,” Woodbury says. “His choreography was the vanguard of works that were being made in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. He created works that have transcended his life on this Earth, and are as current today as they were when they were created.”
But that’s not why arts lovers should turn out to see Ririe-Woodbury’s “Kaleidoscope,” a concert-length show of Nikolais works. “Nik said he was making dances for the common man,” Woodbury says. “I remember him always saying, ‘I want Aunt Minnie to see my dances and enjoy them.’”
Elizabeth Kelley-Wilberg, who danced with the company from 2006 to 2012, is returning to perform in next weekend’s show. “I’ve been doing a lot of these pieces for seven years, but you have to be ever-so-present, with either the props or the counting, because something could go wrong,” she said. “That helps me not get too comfortable. As a performer, I find that so gratifying.”
Gratifying, too, is the work of Nikolais’ dances, some of which require the dancers to wear masks. “It helps you to be a bigger performer,” Kelley-Wilberg said. “You’re filling the whole space in each piece. You’re so used to being who you are — but when you are disguised, what you have to do is to make yourself appear big. You still have to make your individual movement unique, even though you are disguised and you’re doing something that’s very uniform.”
For Mary Lyn Graves, the newest member of Ririe-Woodbury, learning Nikolais’ work is challenging, as it’s unlike any other genre of dance she’s studied or performed. After all, “you’re creating illusions with the human body that don’t necessarily look like the human body,” Graves says. “How do you do that in a clear and impactful way?”
And then there’s Nikolais’ complicated use of props and masks. “Performing in a mask changes how you think about things,” says Graves, a 23-year-old dancer originally from Tulsa, Okla. “You realize how much you use your face and things like peripheral vision. When you’re in unison, you’re truly in unison. Even if you can’t see each other, you’re still moving in one organic body.”
One work that requires particular attention is “Tensile Involvement.” “‘Tensile’ is one of those pieces — with the elastics — where I never feel safe,” Kelley-Wilberg said. “I don’t want to feel safe with it. I want to feel excited, that adrenaline rush.”
In collaboration with the Nikolais/Louis Foundation, Ririe-Woodbury is the only professional dance company in the world allowed to present full-evening performances of Nikolais’ works. To celebrate the centennial of the choreographer’s birth, Ririe-Woodbury recently toured nationally and internationally.
His works are often performed for family shows, and kids in the audience often are inspired to respond to the theatricality of the work, to the black light effects, to the illusions and the colorful costumes. Oftentimes, kids in their seats in the Capitol Theatre will mirror the shapes and motions the dancers are making onstage.
“I love doing the children’s show,” Kelley-Wilberg said. “It’s always in January or February, and it’s always freezing cold outside. But that show week, there’s something magical at the Capitol Theatre. We bus those kids in, do two shows a day. During the night shows, we go out into the audience, and they want our autographs. For me, it’s gratifying.”
As for Graves, she’s come to appreciate how far Nikolais’ influence spread beyond the dance world. Her boyfriend, a musician and visual artist, was aware of Nikolais’ work with synthesizers, sound, projectors and technology.
Fans of “Tron” and video games should respond to Nikolais’ work, the dancer says, because of the way the choreographer brings simple elements together, as well as his use of both shock and whimsy.
“Truthfully, if he were making work now, Nikolais would be working with video games in some way,” Graves said. “You look at the older video games from the 1980s, and the visual makeup is the same coloring as a work like ‘Gallery,’ the same sharp movements.”
Color me a ‘Kaleidoscope’
Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company presents “Two,” a family show of the works of Alwin Nikolais, including pieces such as “Gallery,” “Tensile Involvement,” “Noumenon Mobilus,” and “Kaleidoscope.”
When • Friday and Saturday, Feb. 1-2 at 7 p.m.; and 2 p.m. Feb. 2.
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $30 ($15 students/seniors; with family and group discounts), at arttix.org or 801-355-2787.
Also • In addition to public performances, the company will perform five free student matinees to 7,000 students and teachers, thanks to funding from the Utah State Office of Education POPS Program, the Utah Arts Council, the Salt Lake Arts Council and company sponsors.
More • Nikolais’ multimedia dances influenced contemporary performers such as Blue Man Group, Cirque du Soleil, Pilobolus, and Momix.