Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company presents choreographer Alwin Nikolais’ work at Vilar Center | VailDaily.com
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Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company presents choreographer Alwin Nikolais’ work at Vilar Center

Brenda Himelfarb
Special to the Daily
"Tensile Involvement," a dance by the late choreographer Alwin Nikolais, performed by the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. Nikolais began to develop his own world of abstract dance theater in the 1940s.
Michael Manning | Special to the Daily |

If you go …

What: Nikolais Dance Theater, performed by the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21; STARS performance for kids at 10 a.m.

Where: Vilar Performing Arts Center, 68 Avondale Lane, Beaver Creek.

Cost: $25 for students and $58 for adults; STARS performance is $11 for children and $14 for adults.

More information: The first piece of the 7:30 p.m. performance will be performed topless. Tickets are on sale now at the Vilar Box Office, by calling 970-845-8497 or at http://www.vilarpac.org.

BEAVER CREEK — In the world of dance, choreographer Alwin Nikolais (1910-1993) is considered to be the father of multimedia performance art, combining music, lighting and costumes and becoming the inspiration for companies such as Blue Man Group and Cirque du Soleil. He broke from the tradition of storytelling to create pieces that revolved around a central idea.

Nikolais was artistically inclined in many genres. It began with a career as an organist, accompanying silent films. As a young man, he gained experience in scenic design, acting, puppetry and music composition. It was after attending a performance by German dancer Mary Wigman that Nikolais was inspired to learn dance. And at Bennington College, he learned from some of the greatest figures of the modern dance world, including Martha Graham.

It was in the late ’40s when his dance company was formed that Nikolais began to develop his own world of abstract dance theater, “portraying man as part of a total environment.” As Dance magazine once described the choreographer’s vision, “Nikolais would use the props, lights and music to create environments through which dancers moved and, more important, into which they blended.”

Some said that Nikolais, who was celebrated internationally, was “the magician of dance,” the inspiration of contemporary dance companies such as Philobolus and Momix. His dance troupe was disbanded six years after his death; however, in 2002, Joanne Woodbury and Shirley Ririe, founders of the Woodbury-Ririe Dance Company, became licensed to present full-evening concerts of Nikolais’ work. The three had worked together in New York, and Woodbury and Ririe wanted to continue the avant-garde choreographer’s legacy.

“Alwin Nikolais was the master of modern dance,” said Daniel Charon, artistic director of the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. “He was around in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s and was a very cutting-edge choreographer because he incorporated a lot of multimedia elements into dance and his work really influenced choreographers that followed.”

It might be hard for many generations of audiences to comprehend just how original Nikolais’ early works were, with all of the lighting, sound and props he incorporated into the pieces. These days, it is commonplace in contemporary dance.

Under the direction of Alberto del Saz, of the Nikolais/Louis Foundation, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company will perform some of the most famous pieces by Alwin Nikolais today at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek.

“Alwin Nikolais’ choreography gives our contemporary repertory an important historical context,” said Charon, who works closely with del Saz to stage and remount the work for Woodbury-Ririe. “It represents an integral chapter in the evolution of modern dance, where Nikolais was creating breathtaking, groundbreaking, never-been-done-before multimedia work. His visually stunning explorations still inspire today’s choreographers, who are employing new multimedia in their own contemporary work.”

Nikolais left very few boundaries uncrossed. Today’s performance at the Vilar Performing Arts Center, for example, features a first piece that is performed topless. He consistently redefined dance as “the art of motion which, left on its own merits, becomes the message as well as the medium.”

“Nikolais remains an inspiration whose sense of exploration and curiosity continually reminds us of the power of the imagination and its ability to innovate,” Charon said.


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