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Monday, January 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 18.0° F  Overcast
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Nikolais lives!
The Ririe Woodbury troupe re-creates the P.T. Barnum of modern dance
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Nikolais created total dance theater.
Nikolais created total dance theater.

One of the arts imperatives of our times is preserving the ephemeral oeuvres of the 20th century masters of modern dance. Sixteen years after her death, Martha Graham's company toured a set of the grande dame's works last fall, with a stop at Overture Hall. On Friday, Feb. 23, at 8 p.m., the Salt Lake City-based Ririe Woodbury Dance Company brings a program of Alwin Nikolais' total dance theater pieces to the Wisconsin Union Theater. It's a gala event for the UW Dance Program's 80th anniversary celebration.

More than a few dance writers have called Nikolais, who died in 1993, the P.T. Barnum of modern dance. Think of him as an indirect precursor of Cirque du Soleil instead of a branch on Graham's family tree. With a painter's eye and a penchant for physics, Nikolais cast dancers as moving elements in shifting environments of light, color, design and sound.

Nikolais' full-bore braininess hooked its share of UW-Madison Dance Program alums, including Joan Woodbury, co-director of Ririe Woodbury. That's the company selected by Murray Louis and Alberto del Saz, co-directors of the Nikolais Foundation, to maintain the master's legacy.

Woodbury, who received a UW School of Education Distinguished Alumni Award in 1993, was a student here in the late '40s. In '49 she took Nikolais' class at a summer workshop in Denver. "Nik was a lot like Marge H'Doubler [founder of the UW Dance Program]," Woodbury says. "Both led dancers to explore infinite choices - to develop what Nik called ‘the unique gesture.' The moment I met him, I knew his approach was for me."

"As an artist I break all my own rules. I do what I want onstage," Nikolais famously said. His rebellious streak and subtly psychedelic style were in sync with the '60s and '70s, when more UW dancers (myself included) were drawn to his school. UW Dance prof Claudia Melrose, a program graduate and its current chair, was a member of Nikolais' company in that era. And the Alwin Nikolais/Murray Louis Dance Theater performed at the Union Theater in '69, '73 and '78.

Woodbury's delighted to bring Nikolais' works back. "To have my dancers doing Nik's work is a gift," she says. "Giving audiences the pleasure of seeing his works 14 years after his death is extraordinary, and to do so at my alma mater is heartwarming."

Restoring Nikolais' repertory is both labor of love and collaborative effort for Louis, del Saz and Woodbury. "We all want to make these works look as much like they would if Nik were here as possible," says Woodbury. "We'll talk a dance through, watch videos and ask each other ‘what do you think that was? What's the quality there?' Women talk about it differently than men. Sometimes I'll sense that the energy's too hard. I'll say, ‘You know, I think this has more breath in it.'"

Much of Nikolais' work was improv-based. Dancers made choices onstage, so reconstruction involves patching a dance together from several different videos.

"Murray's enhanced the direction," Woodbury says. "The dancers know exactly what to do, but they still have the potential to punch it in their own ways."

Nikolais was an improviser when it came to lighting, too. "Nik changed the lights every night. He'd sit in the theater and say ‘bring up the reds' - none of that was ever written down. We work from memory, and we have to mold modern technology to get close to the colors he used. We considered using video projectors for the slides, but it doesn't work - it's a different look. So we use old-fashioned slide projectors, the kind nobody manufactures anymore."

The works on Friday's bill were made from the '50s through the '80s, but they'll surprise you, Woodbury says. "Nik's dances were so far ahead of his time, they still look current."

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