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Alwin Nikolais - More Resources

Alwin Nikolais (1910-1993)

By Ted Bain

Alwin Nikolais, choreographer, composer, and designer, is recognized for his integral use of percussion training for teachers and dancers; for his own original system of movement notation, Choroscript; and for his experimental projects featuring mixed-media spectacle and electronic music. Although a 1993 Dance Magazine retrospective correctly notes that Nikolais’s 1950s choreography introduced dance to the era of modern multimedia theater (28), it was Nikolais’ mastery of abstract composition that may have set more significant precedents for modern choreography.

Nikolais was born in Southington, Connecticut, the son of John and Martha (née Heinrich) Nikolais. Along with his two sisters and three brothers, he studied music, and during his high school years he was employed as a piano accompanist for silent films at the Westport Movie House. In 1929 he graduated from Lewis High School in Southington. In 1933, after attending a performance by the German Expressionist dancer Mary Wigman, Nikolais became interested in studying percussion and approached Truda Kaschmann, a former Wigman student teaching in Hartford, who persuaded him to study dance. While a dance student, Nikolais also directed the Hartford Parks Marionette Theatre from 1935 to 1937. In 1937 he began teaching, dancing, and choreographing for his own company and school in Hartford.

From 1938 to 1940, Nikolais spent summers at the Bennington School of Dance in Vermont, where he was influenced particularly by Hanya Holm, another Wigman student. He collaborated with Kaschmann in his first fully commissioned professional work as a dancer and choreographer, Eight Column Line, which premièred in Hartford in May, 1939. Before and after World War II, during which Nikolais served with the United States Army's Criminal Investigation Department, he directed the dance department of the Hartt School of Music from 1940-42 and from 1946-49. After the war he also studied and taught with Holm in New York City and in summer dance workshops at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, where, in 1949, he met his longtime associate Murray Louis.

In 1948, Nikolais began teaching at the Henry Street Settlement, a Lower East Side Manhattan neighborhood center devoted to social work, and, in the following year, began to establish the Henry Street Playhouse as a leading dance school and theater. After retiring as a performer in the early 1950s, he devoted himself fully to teaching, choreographing, designing, and composing. His resident Henry Street Settlement performance group, which became the Alwin Nikolais Dance Company, provided regular concerts, children's shows, and training in dance composition and teaching. Among the dance artists who have drawn from Nikolais’ progressive range of aesthetic and professional responsibilities, Murray Louis and Phyllis Lamhut, two original members of the group, have acknowledged Nikolais' influence on their own achievements as teachers, choreographers, and company managers.

During these years, the Nikolais ensemble performed at the Henry Street Playhouse with little technical support. Nikolais designed and often made costumes, constructed props, set lighting, composed the music, and operated or cued the technical effects for each performance. Special exits and entrances were choreographed to enable the dancers themselves to switch slide projections, make technical changes, or provide musical accompaniment.

The first of Nikolais' major innovative works, Masks, Props, and Mobiles (1953), was presented in separate parts, or movements, and introduced Nikolais' characteristic depiction of figures in motion, blending in and out of a stage environment of projected colors and patterns. Nikolais' stated purpose was to have each dancer's motion create and control linear designs and sculptural shapes without revealing his or her own physical body. This dance also introduced his integral use of tent- or cocoon-style stretch fabric costumes that continuously re-sculpt and extend the dancer's shape.

Nikolais's Henry Street projects represented an ongoing effort to broaden the dancer's medium. Among these, Kaleidoscope (1955), according to Nikolais, further explored the use of props and costume as a "means of extending the body as an abstract protagonist" (Growth of a Theme, 31). Prism (1956) featured one of the first uses of an electronic score and lighting consciously designed to define the appearance of figures in motion. Two contrasting pieces, Tower (1965) and Tent (1968), presented dancers creating material constructions and becoming living parts of the evolving dominant image.

Other significant Nikolais dance compositions include Village of Whispers (1955), The Bewitched (1957), Cantos (1958), Mirrors (1958), Allegory (1959), Totem (1960), Imago (1963), Sanctum (1964), Galaxy (1965), Première (1967), Fusion (1967), Vaudeville of the Elements (1967), Scenario (1971), Aphorisms (1977), Gallery (1978), Pond (1982), Graph (1984), and Crucible (1985). Selections from his 1950s dance concerts were televised by the Ford Foundation and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and his musical compositions were recorded by Hanover-Signature. He collaborated with avant-garde filmmaker Ed Emshwiller in the 1960s and his company toured inter-continentally from 1968.

The Nikolais Dance Theatre was based in the Henry Street Playhouse until 1970, and thereafter shared larger facilities in lower Manhattan with the Murray Louis Dance Company. Co-managed as the Nikolais-Louis Foundation for Dance, the two companies and their founders remained closely allied until Nikolais died in 1993. Nikolais’s honors include the Dance Magazine Award (1968), the Grand Prix de la Ville de Paris (1969), the Capezio Award (1982), the Scripps American Dance Festival Award (1985), two Guggenheim Fellowships, the French government's Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters (1982) and Knight of the Legion of Honor (1985), Kennedy Center Honors (1987), and the National Medal of Arts (1987).

Nikolais’s integration of music, design, and movement may have been a natural evolution following his employment as a piano accompanist for silent films during the 1920s and his directorship of Hartford Parks Marionette Theatre during the 1930s. The original expressionism of his dance movement may have been directly inspired by Wigman, Holm, and Louis Horst. Ultimately, several of his innovations may become recognized as significant precedents: his electronic mixing of sound scores anticipates by 40 years the 1990s techno compositions by rave and club DJs. His utilitarian applications of design and movement technique toward a pure aesthetic product might be regarded as comparably postmodern to the work of the 1960s Judson choreographers who followed a decade later. His fastidiously considered integration of lighting, costume, and stage design, for which the construction of original materials and instruments along with a close collaboration with the performers were often necessary, are now replicated, though perhaps to a lesser extent integrated, by computerized conventions available to most major theatrical staging of modern dance.

Nikolais’ theory of “decentralization,” by some accounts, depersonalized dancers through costume and design and focused more on the overall spectacle of the production rather than on individual dancers. Consequently, comparative dance surveys have taken a reductive view of this theory as a simple reaction against such ballet conventions as story dance and virtuosity. In suggesting that “the human presence does not dominate [Nikolais’] theatrical world,” Susan Au speculates that “Fokine might have accused him of neglecting the element of drama” (159-60). In acknowledging Nikolais’s “full range of phenomena that includes man but is not wholly dominated by him,” Don McDonagh also acknowledges that Nikolais presents “the emotionally stressed movement of violently motivated human beings” (304). These cautious overviews typify the general critical appreciation of Nikolais’s performed works for their visceral effect, but not for their thematic content. More precisely, Nikolais’s abstract compositions may be divorced from time and space, but they are not divorced from human character, virtuosity, or drama. In most of Nikolais’s dances, characters often define themselves through the liminality of their human forms, and play out a dramatic progression of interactive responses to their setting. Nikolais’s form of abstraction might therefore be explained in terms similar to those in Herbert Read’s explanation of the “constructive image”(125-40): there is a paradoxical resonance in Nikolais’s choreographed sequences of experiences without chronology and in his dancers’ performances of virtuosity framed within the parameters of an idea.

The Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis Papers, including company publications and press packets, scores in Choroscript, and manuscripts to The Nikolais/Louis Technique: The Unique Gesture a Philosophy & Technique of Modern Dance (2005), along with an extensive collection of videos, are archived in the Ohio University Dance Collection. There are several YouTube excerpts from dances including Imago, Noumenon, Crucible, Pond, Liturgies, and Lyhthic. In the realm of mass popularity, among the YouTube versions of Tensile Involvement (1953), one of Nikolais’s most frequently performed repertory pieces for over 30 years, is a Joffrey Ballet reconstruction that underscores the opening credits to the Robert Altman film The Company (2003), which was perhaps at its the time the most widely disseminated performance of a Nikolais composition. Notwithstanding the dancers’ placed movement1 (the antithesis of the style that Nikolais’s theory of decentralization was meant to establish, [Louis 58]) and the uninformed editing of camera shots (obscuring the overall impression and sequential development of the dance), viewers nonetheless receive a clear impression of Nikolais’s metaphorical characterization of human figures extending their physical expression through long intersecting bands of fabric to which they are involuntarily and inextricably linked. Apart from the limitations of dance as an ephemeral art that rarely extends beyond its contemporary moment, the clarity of Nikolais’s art may therefore survive the imperfections of current and future renderings.


NOTES

1. Dance movement is often described as “placed” when it communicates in performance only the intention or effort to adhere to prescribed steps or figures.


Ted Bain holds a doctorate from the University of Toronto and has taught in English, Performing Arts, and Comparative Literature departments in several colleges including Cornell University, Rochester Institute of Technology, University of Maryland, Ithaca College, and Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He has contributed to several journals including Modern Drama, Theater Journal, Theater Survey, and the Mid-Atlantic Almanack, for which he served as editor for six years. His short films have received two Maryland State Arts Council awards and he currently teaches English in a high school in Prince George’s County, MD.

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Au, Susan. Ballet and Modern Dance. London: Thames and Hudson, 1988.

Cohen, Selma Jeanne, ed. The Modern Dance; Seven Statements of Belief. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1966.

Gitelman, Claudia and Randy Martin, ed. The Returns of Alwin Nikolais: Bodies, Boundaries and the Dance Canon. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007.

Louis, Murray. “Thoughts: Murray Louis on Alwin Nikolais.” Dance Magazine, December 1979: 56-69.

Mazo, Joseph H. “Alwin Nikolais (1910-93): The Nik of Time.” Dance Magazine, July 1993: 28-31.

McDonagh, Don. The Complete Guide to Modern Dance. New York: Doubleday, 1976.

Nikolais, Alwin. “Growth of a Theme” Dance Magazine, February 1961, 30-34.

—— and Murray Louis. The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique: A Philosophy and Method of Modern Dance. New York: Routledge, 2005.

——, Nik: a documentary. Marcia B. Siegel., ed. New York: Dance Perspectives, 1971.

Pedroni, Francesca. Alwin Nikolais. Palermo: L'Epos, 2000.

Read, Herbert. Icon and Idea: The Function of Art in the Development of Human Consciousness. 2nd ed., New York, Schocken, 1965.

Online Resources

Nikolais Louis Foundation for Dance. http://www.nikolaislouis.org/

Archives

Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis Papers, Ohio State University

http://www.library.ohiou.edu/archives/dance/