Birds are a favorite subject in ballet because they symbolize the ethereal and inaccessible. Bird dancers who plays swans or firebirds move in long, soaring lines. Their fluttering motions connote fragility. They are altogether enchanting creatures with "supernatural" powers.
Alwin Nikolais, whose dance company is at the New York City Center through Jan. 6, takes a very different look at birds.
His new "Aviary: A Ceremony for Bird People" seeks to describe bird behavior not through plot but pure bodily imagery. Through that imagery we come to see birds as angular, pecking, bobbing.In the dance's central motif, Nikolais's bird people perch on square modules, their necks and backsides protruding as their arms and legs extend to make even more complexly angular geometric shapes. Balance seems not an innate characteristic of these birds, but an achievement hard won. Perhaps Nikolais is telling us something about dancers' labors as well as birds'.
Certainly he is examining birds' nervous systems. In flight birds might soar majestically, but on the ground, where "Aviary" takes place, birds are fidgety. The dancers move in small spasms; in fact, "Aviary" might be the apotheosis of the twitch. Sometimes the dance takes on a humorous air because of all the twitching, but most of the time the birds are menacing because they are ungainly and alien to human movement.
Obviously inspired more by Hitchcock's movie "The Birds' rather than "Swan Lake," "Aviary" is interesting as a corrective to the overly romanticized image of birds. Yet it would have been more interesting had Nikolais gone beyond clinical observations of animal behavior. For example, there is little differentiation between his birds. Nor are their twitchings and strange throbbings set in any structural form. Except for a final sequence where jumps are magnified behind a lighted screen, "Aviary" has no momentum or controlling dynamic. It just goes on and on, and when it ends there's nothing to do but assume that Nikolais has run out of ideas.
Imaginative but shapeless dances seen to be typical of Nikolais in recent years. The only feature that saves "Gallery," made in 1978, from being one more string of divertissements, is a savage punch line in which disembodied heads peering over a curtain are further mutilated by big black smudges, which one takes to be bullet holes. The metaphor of the carnival's shooting gallery as firing squad comes full circle.
With its inventive optical illusions and its expressionistic grotesquerie, "Gallery" shows Nikolais the wizard illusionist working at full stream. It also proves that theme and variations aren't enough to sustain a dance. One wants those variations to accumulate into multilayered experience and evolve into unexpected situations.
One leaves a Nikolais concert with one's sensory apparatus pleasurably overworked and one's thinking apparatus woefully underworked.