Nikolais Dance Theatre, King's Theatre, Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture

Books from the 1970s on dance, illustrated in black and white and (sparingly) in colour, always devote at least one of those colour pages to Alwin Nikolais. They had to: he choreographed as much for the lighting as for his dancers. Spots, stripes and blocks of colour turn the bodies underneath into abstract groups and squiggles. Film it in black and white, and half the show would vanish.

Nikolais died in 1993. His dance company no longer exists, and these multi-media works aren't part of the mainstream repertory. These Edinburgh Festival performances are by the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, founded in Utah by two of his former students. The dancers are impressively secure, clear and steady in Nikolais's slow-motion groupings.

The dances are all from the 1950s, Nikolais' breakthrough period, or the 1980s, when he was receiving commissions as a grand old man of American dance. The early works are stronger: more concise, more confident.

They're also clearly rooted in modern dance traditions. Nikolais was reacting against the psychological dramas of Martha Graham, but still borrowed a few steps and costume ideas. In Lythic, four women jump about in stretch jersey tube skirts and priestess head-dresses.

There are more stretch tubes in Noumenon Mobilus and the dancers sit and rock on benches, just like Graham's Lamentation. Rather than expressing emotion, though, Nikolais uses the fabric to make his dancers vanish. As they bend and tug, the costumes make geometric shapes, with hands and heads suddenly bulging out of smooth surfaces.

By the 1980s Nikolais was allowing his dancers to be human, or nearly so. The white-clad figures of Blank on Blank are simply lit and they have duets and group dances. But the dancers move like automata, jerking and staring with blank eyes.

The music is still electronic clicks and drones, but in the later works it's slightly tuneful. In Mechanical Organ (1980) the dancers are doll-like, hopping and skipping through winsome duets. Crucible (1985) is a return to artfully-lit abstraction. The dancers cautiously lift fingers, then limbs over the edge of a mirrored surface.

Tensile Involvement (1955) is bolder. The dancers run on with broad, elastic ribbons. It's a cat's-cradle dance: they pull the elastic into taut boxes, or fill the stage with larger designs. I can't help thinking of another cat's-cradle dance, a duet in Ashton's La Fille Mal Gardée. When Ashton's ribbon pattern is revealed, audiences gasp and applaud with pleasure. That's because it's a surprise, a wonder. Nikolais starts out with a cat's cradle, then doggedly works out variations on it. He's a smoke-and-mirrors choreographer, but there are no transformations in these works.

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