Joan Woodbury and Shirley Ririe have a relationship with Murray Louis and the late Alwin Nikolais that goes back more than 50 years.
The founders of Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company both studied under Nikolais in New York (in 1949 and 1952, respectively), long before they began their collaboration in the 1960s. And Louis, who was a soloist with the Nikolais Dance Theatre, was — and still is — a revered modern-dance star.
Now, a decade after Nikolais' death, Louis, Ririe and Woodbury have collaborated again to bring the late choreographer's works to the stage — and taking it one step further, they will also take the program on tour around the world.
"Alwin Nikolais: A Celebration Tour" will premiere in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. Then, RWDC will hit the road, going to New York in October and then on to Italy and France in spring 2004.
"This is the most exciting thing that has happened to us in our whole career," Ririe said during an interview at the RW offices. "Nik was our mentor, our guru and our friend."
"For me, it's like a circle," said Woodbury. "He gave us a lot and we're finally getting around to giving him something back."
The works that Louis, Ririe and Woodbury decided to perform during this tour include "Noumenon Mobilus" (1953), "Tensile Involvement" (1955); "Lythic," from a larger work, "Prism" (1956); "Mechanical Organ" (1980), "Crucible" (1985), "Blank on Blank" (1987) and the finale from "Liturgies" (1960).
"In this special evening of repertory, we decided to choose works that show how Nik's works evolved throughout the years," said Louis. "Nik was a fascinating innovator or original movement. But he was also slammed for his vision in the beginning of his career. However, he overwhelmed the critics and audiences later."
"He was a Renaissance man," said Woodbury. "He was involved with all the different aspects of dance. He did the choreography, the music, the sets, the costumes and the lighting. The lighting was just as important to him as the movement. The costumes and sets were just as important to him as the music. He really looked at his works as being total dance theater."
"He was so innovative," said Ririe. "Some of his works were created more than 50 years ago and they're still contemporary. And the works we chose specifically show the different stages of Nik's career."
The challenge of the program was making sure Nikolais' idea of movement would be evident in the staging. "These pieces are not just a bunch of steps," said Louis. "They're all about philosophy. Each of these dances were created with a certain idea of technology. They are studies of movement no matter how subtle or big it can be."
"Nik was often accused of dehumanizing dance," said Woodbury. "But he had a different vision of what dance was about. He believed dance could be transformed into something bigger than itself. He believed dance was the motion and the dancer is the conveyer of the motion — just like the strings and bow are the conveyer of the violin music."
"He was also demanding and exact," said Ririe. "He would tell you what he wanted and talk it out of you. He wouldn't show you. He'd get you to find it inside of you and experiment with you. Then if he didn't like it, he'd change it. But he didn't like people imitating his movement. He got you to do it on your own."
"I don't go in staging one of Nik's works, wanting to overwhelm the dancers," Louis said. "But I do want to, hopefully, inspire them to explore the movements on their own and listen to what I'm saying to them."
Louis knows, however, that the young dancers are at a disadvantage. "It took me years to learn and understand what Nik was trying to do. These dancers have only four weeks.
"However, knowing Joan and Shirley, they have chosen dancers that are eager to learn. And I see them catching on to Nik's idea of strength and mobility. But I remind them that they have to take it one step further. I keep telling them, 'Once you have it, you have to define it.' "
If you go . . .
What: "Alwin Nikolais: A Celebration Tour," Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company
Where: Rose Wagner
Performing Arts Center,
138 W. Broadway
When: Wednesday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Saturday matinee 2 p.m.
How much: $35;
$20 for students, seniors
Phone: 355-2787 or 1-800-451-2787