Dana Nicolay’s True Story Dances
by Lydia Hance
If variety is the spice of life, then Beyond! by Nicolay Dance Works, performed on March 6 and 7, 2015 at The Barn, was muy calliente. Artistic Director Dana Nicolay has had an impressive performance career, dancing with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Contemporary Dancers Canada, and Houston Ballet. Nicolay has been making dance and working in academia for over two decades at Sam Houston State University. Beyond! was a collection of ten pieces all choreographed by Nicolay ranging from ladies classically en pointe to barefoot solos and raw duets. The pieces spanned autobiographical work, historical representation, and abstract visualizations of music. The aesthetic and technical diversity that came from a single choreographer is notable, and I am curious which avenue the company will take as it matures.
With so many different pieces on a program, it could have been hard for the audience to untangle the night’s many ideas. But Nicolay anticipated and solved that problem by introducing each piece which, incidentally, made Nicolay more relatable as a choreographer. The brief pauses also provided a great opportunity for the dancers to change their beautiful costumes designed by Barry Doss, Maggie Lasher, Kristina Hanssen, and Nicolay. The evening opened with Bergamasca, a ballet work with four ladies en pointe all sharing brief duets with the sole male danseur, Dat Nguyen. They leapt and turned and partnered one at a time with Nguyen. Nicolay’s choreography was musical, but the dancers seemed hesitant to submit themselves to the drive of the music. The use of cannon was overpowering, but eventually led to an enjoyable rhythm.
The evening continued with Nicolay’s Early Retirement, which he created at Bates Dance Festival in 1991. He attributes Urban Bush Women’s founder Jawole Willa Jo Zollar for insisting he make this piece—if he didn’t tell his story, no one else would. Cody Miley danced from Nicolay’s perspective, telling the story of his father. The simplicity of the movement allowed the modesty of the spoken language to reveal Nicolay’s deep understanding of his father. The pacing of the choreography and text was compelling and irregular. We were entrusted with not only a story of sacrifice, but a glimpse of a son’s posthumous response of gratitude and peace. This was deep, well investigated work.
Another autobiographical piece on the program was Facets of the Dreamer, where Nicolay explored his own feminine archetypes through a Jungian lens. This was choreographed to the rich, yet sparse, Gnossienes 1-6 by Erik Satie.
In another completely diverse work, Sabachtani (which premiered in 1997), six men with bare chests and earth-toned pants took turns falling in the shape of the crucifix. The other five would catch the one, and the piece tumbled on in solemnity. Nicolay pulled the layers and phrasing perfectly from Samuel Barber’s large music—no easy task. This was the strongest group piece; the dancers were centered in the music and in their own flesh. Their weight cascaded from risky falls to grounded spirals. Purely partnered, the dance and music supported the symbolism of the work.
Two other standout duets were Hands On danced by Miley and Kaylee DeMetrotion and Estrangement danced by Miley and Corina Torres. Hands On involved a couple thrusting their weight across the stage in slides and dramatic linear turning lifts. Momentum was sovereign and the dancers surrendered. With frequency, the momentum pulled them into each other finding moments of powerful physical touch. The pattern of angst and release built into the most physical dancing of the evening.
Estrangement was a detailed and subtly dramatic work about a couple that won’t give up on each other but actively struggles to find common ground. The unusual points of contact added to the lovely awkwardness of two people connecting without enthusiasm. Their commitment to each other outweighed their current situation. Hope for their relationship is sometimes the only thing two imperfect people can hold onto.
Nicolay Dance Works showcased its talented dancers and collaborators from Sam Houston State University with several large group pieces, Dream Birds, Mes Amis, and Free Fall, but Nicolay’s voice was strongest in the smaller, personal pieces with more inventive detail.
Lydia Hance is the Executive and Artistic Director of Frame Dance, a contemporary dance company in Houston. She is a choreographer, filmmaker, curator, and educator.