Steps in the Right Direction

Lewis Segal is The Times' dance critic

Few video stores carry dance titles, and even most mail-order catalogs list little beyond ballet. So it can be hard to learn about the multivolume projects released by specialists, and sometimes by dance companies, that offer a more comprehensive and deeper view of the art.

For example, important new video collections focus on modern dance master Alwin Nikolais (who died in 1993 at age 80) and traditional dance in Europe and Africa.

The five-cassette Nikolais collection may be especially noteworthy, since it is narrated, directed and edited by his companion and former leading dancer, choreographer Murray Louis. Nobody knows the unique Nikolais aesthetic better.

Each VHS tape begins with the same two-minute introduction, in which Louis celebrates his mentor's versatility and innovation: "He evolved an abstract theater which gave equal importance to choreography, sound, lighting design and costumes, and thus gave birth to a new form called 'multimedia.' "

Indeed, the five tapes are identical in mission and overall effect, offering a kaleidoscopic sampling rather than a program of complete works. Although meticulous about duplicating Nikolais' original stage lighting, Louis has cut the longer pieces into their component sections for no evident purpose other than giving each tape the same balance between pure-dance showpieces and special-effects spectacle.

That decision is highly questionable, but the performances on the tapes serve Nikolais' stage magic with a very special refinement. Here, a capsule overview:

ALWIN NIKOLAIS

"The World of Alwin Nikolais," Program I: "Crucible," men's duet from "Mechanical Organ," "Mantis" from "Imago," "Cave" from "Tent," "Rooftops" from "Imago," Nikolais tributes and biography from the 1987 "Kennedy Center Honors," with "Tensile Involvement." 48 minutes.

Isolated limbs above a mirrored floor turn anatomy into fantasy ("Crucible"), while segmented, bamboo-like poles lengthen arms into tentacles ("Imago"). Finally, dancing bodies dissolve into pure light when Nikolais clothes them in slide projections ("Tent").

Program II: Opening dance from "Gallery," finale of "Mechanical Organ," "Boulevard" from "Imago," "Hoop" from "Totem," "Garden" from "Tent," "Noumenon," finale of "Totem" (revised). 40 minutes.

Under black light, dancers become giant puppets ("Gallery") or a shapeless mass when inside a cloth sack ("Noumenon"). However, they easily hold attention in common leotards ("Mechanical Organ") when Nikolais' movement impetus ricochets through their bodies in unexpected dance fireworks.

Program III: "Pond," opening dance from "Mechanical Organ," "Clothes" from "Kaleidoscope" (revised), quintet from "Mechanical Organ," first dance from "Gallery," bench duet from "Mechanical Organ," "Descent to Hell" from "Tent." 44 minutes.

Horizontal dancers scoot along on tiny wagons in an aquatic environment ("Pond"), with color effects so intense, the TV screen glows like stained glass. Striking but grim: faces shot to bits ("Gallery") and people swallowed up by canopies large and small ("Tent").

Program IV: Triple trio from "Gallery," jump dance from "Totem," "Kites" from "Imago," shadow opening from "Totem," "Celebrants" from "Totem," "Blank on Blank," water study from "Sanctum." 44 minutes.

Dancers float atop invisible platforms ("Gallery"), manipulate banners attached to their limbs ("Imago") and, encased in fabric loops, transform themselves into geological formations ("Sanctum"). However, Nikolais' subtle shadow effects ("Totem") just don't work on the small screen.

Program V: "Imago" suite, "Chrysalis" and "Artisan" from "Imago," "Effigy" from "Totem," "Reliquary" from "Totem," "Clique" from "Imago," "Masks" and "Clowns" from "Gallery," "Tensile Involvement." 41 minutes.

Scattershot editing initially makes Nikolais seem incoherent ("Imago" suite), but all the small-cast vehicles display the excellence of the company soloists in unusual contexts for virtuosity. The series ends in one more splurge of large-scale showmanship (a newly shot "Tensile Involvement").

*

* "The World of Alwin Nikolais," $50 each, $225 for the set, plus shipping, from the Nikolais/Louis Foundation for Dance, 611 Broadway, Suite 221-223, New York, NY 10012. (212) 420-0700.

WORLD DANCE

Six years ago, a set of 30 folkloric videotapes and nine books appeared under the title "The JVC Video Anthology of World Music and Dance." The tapes and books, both academically indispensable and shockingly uneven, are now available individually--and two valuable new supplements have just been issued in VHS format: "Africa" (three videotapes, three booklets) and "Europe" (two videotapes, two booklets).

These and the earlier titles in the collection, produced by the Japanese media giant JVC in collaboration with Smithsonian/Folkways Recordings, are edited and packaged for reference and study. For starters, the individual performance segments are often drastically truncated to serve a purely educational function: as examples to learn from.

Nineteen seconds is an awfully short time to appreciate Senegalese Jola drumming (in the new "Africa" collection) or Icelandic clapping songs (in the "Europe" set). Moreover, because the segments are taken from existing footage rather than newly shot, they vary dramatically in photographic quality, sound, direction and editing.

But if you go over the texts before watching and approach the performances as entries in a folklore encyclopedia, the frustrations lessen and the insights multiply.

The previous supplement to the series ("The Americas") was reviewed in these pages in January--and new sets on the Middle East and South Asia are being planned. Here's a quick tour of the highlights of the newest releases:

AFRICA

Egypt, Uganda, Senegal (20 pieces, 57 minutes).

Ugandan banana dancers in brilliant yellow shake their way to glory on a tape that also explores drum traditions, healing rites and even a nasty bit of Americana: the Senegalese island from which slaves were shipped to the New World.

Gambia, Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria (33 pieces, 52 minutes).

Priceless 20-year-old dance footage from Liberia compensates for fragmented, terribly shot Ghana festival material. A lively Nigerian segment focuses on urban traditions--including boxing music.

Kenya, Malawi, Botswana, South Africa (22 pieces, 48 minutes).

A glimpse of something called "Afrikaner Historical Folkloric Dance" looks ridiculously synthetic next to the intense funeral and spirit-possession sequences from Malawi and the virile Zulu work dances excerpted here.

EUROPE

Iceland, Denmark, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, Czech Republic, Hungary, Belgium (33 pieces, 59 minutes).

Sword dances of three nations form a subgenre on a tape so artfully edited it can be watched for pleasure as well as study. A feast of fancy legwork, though Irish piper Micho Russell and others make the musical content exceptional too.

France, Spain, Italy, Serbia, Romania (26 pieces, 58 minutes).

Wildly uneven, with a questionable crossover into commercial French pop and incoherently edited flamenco. However, the rarely seen Serbian and Romanian healing rituals prove deeply fascinating.

*

* "The JVC/Smithsonian Folkways Video Anthology of Music and Dance of Africa," $149; "The JVC/Smithsonian Folkways Video Anthology of Music and Dance of Europe," $99; plus shipping. Multicultural Media, RR3 Box 6655, Granger Road, Barre, VT 05641. (800) 550-9675.

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