Nikolais, Alwin Theodore

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Nikolais, Alwin Theodore

(b. 25 November 1910 in Southington, Connecticut; d. 8 May 1993 in New York City), choreographer, designer, composer, and pioneer of multimedia dance.

Nikolais was the youngest of five children who survived infancy of John Nikolais, a Russian immigrant, and German-born Martha Heinrich. His parents had a successful bakery and retail business in Southington. Nikolais showed an aptitude for theater and music from an early age, and after his graduation from high school he found employment in a wide range of musical and theatrical enterprises in New England. By 1934 he was codirector, with Michael Adrian, of the Southington Drama Center. At the same time, he returned to a childhood interest in puppetry and created a successful marionette theater, which, with support from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), toured Connecticut. The WPA also engaged him to direct stage movement for the Negro Ensemble of the Federal Theater Project.

The future choreographer became interested in modern dance in 1933 when he saw a performance of the great German dance pioneer Mary Wigman in New Haven, Connecticut. He studied at the Bennington College Summer School of Dance in 1937, 1938, and 1939, where he was influenced by the American choreographer Martha Graham, the musician Louis Horst, and the writer and critic John Martin. In May 1939, Nikolais created his first major ballet, in collaboration with Truda Kaschman: Eight Column Line (music by Ernest Krenek, designs by A. Everett Austin) premiered at Avery Memorial Theater in Hartford, Connecticut. He toured the United States and Mexico with a small company, Dancers en Route, but later gave up performing to concentrate on choreography, music composition, and theater design.

Nikolais served with the United States Army in Europe from 1942 to 1946. After the war he concentrated his dance study with Hanya Holm, a former assistant to Mary Wigman and her most prominent representative in the United States. He became Holm’s teaching assistant in her New York City studio and at her summer institute at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. In 1948, on her recommendation, he was appointed resident director of the Playhouse at the Henry Street Settlement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he formed the Playhouse Dance Company (renamed the Nikolais Dance Theatre in 1951). Under his direction, the Playhouse increased arts education and enrichment programs in its ethnically diverse neighborhood and became a focus of interest for the New York dance community. In 1949 Nikolais met Murray Louis, a dancer who became his companion and artistic partner in a union that lasted for forty-three years, until Nikolais’s death. The pair shared houses both in Greenwich Village and in Southampton, Long Island, New York. When either artist was on tour, the men kept in touch with one another through regular correspondence.

As Nikolais developed his own dance aesthetic, he turned away from the dramatic and psychological content prevalent in dance of the 1940s to explore abstract possibilities of movement. Masías, Props, and Mobiles, which premiered at the Henry Street Playhouse on 1 December 1955, fully realized his point of view and was acknowledged by the press as a conquest of dance abstraction. One section, “Web,” was later developed and titled Tensile Involvement. It became a signature Nikolais work, performed by the Nikolais Dance Theatre and then by the Nikolais/Murray Louis Dance Company until its demise in 1999.

Nikolais became nationally prominent in 1956 when Kaleidoscope was performed at the American Dance Festival in New London, Connecticut. Critics recognized the ballet as a reinvigoration of modern dance, although some were disturbed by the dancers’ lack of emotion. Throughout his career Nikolais was criticized for masking dancers with unusual costuming and stage properties. In response to charges of dehumanization, he contended that his total theater represented a new humanism by showing men and women interacting with universal mechanisms, rather than in domination of them.

With the premiere of Prism on 27 December 1956 at the Henry Street Playhouse, Nikolais began developing novel lighting techniques. His innovations with saturated color, low side lighting, and projections of light onto dancers and cyclorama became stock-in-trade for dance, theater, and multimedia productions. In creating works for television, he pioneered the use of chroma-key blue technology for dance. It became a widely used technique for superimposing images. After 1958 he created electronically manipulated sound as an integral part of all his ballets.

Nikolais created eleven large-scale works in the decade following Kaleidoscope and Prism. The most successful were Cantos (1957), Allegory (1959), Totem (1960), and Sanctum (1964), which all opened at the Henry Street Playhouse; and Vaudeville of the Elements (1965), which was commissioned by the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis and premiered at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre there. Although he pursued nonliteral communication, his works were not without content. Human evolution and folly were frequent concerns. Often he used humor to draw audiences into unsettling experience. Tent (1968) begins with the jolly construction of a world—the tent—in which the dancers awaken to life and ultimately annihilate themselves and their world. After the success of Tent and Imago (1963) in Paris in 1968, the Nikolais Dance Theatre was booked to perform in major opera houses and theaters in North and South America, Europe, and Asia.

Nikolais continued to choreograph prolifically for his own theater, as the training of his dancers was so specific to his choreographic method and philosophy that no other New York City companies performed his works. Among his most important works of the 1970s and 1980s are Scenario (1971), Foreplay (1972), and Crossfade (1974), which all premiered in New York City; Temple (1974), which premiered in Madrid, Spain; Guignol (1977) and Gallery (1978), which premiered in New York City; Countdown (1979), which premiered in Mexico City; Mechanical Organ (1980, reworked in 1982), which premiered in Charleston, South Carolina; Persons and Structures (1984), which premiered in New York City; and Graph (1984) and Crucible (1985), both of which premiered in Durham, North Carolina. He continued to choreograph in the late 1980s while being treated for cancer, but during his illness the quality of his work diminished.

Expanding upon a European conceptual approach to dance training, Nikolais had wide-ranging influence as an educator. He gave his students the means for technical mastery without imposing a movement vocabulary, stimulating their own artistry with improvisation and choreographic opportunity. Many of his company members and students became respected teachers and choreographers with differing and distinctive styles.

In 1978 he established a school in Angers, France, at the behest of the French Ministry of Culture. Two years later the ministry commissioned Schema for the Paris Opera. For his influence on the dance community in France he was made a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters (1982) and a Knight of the Legion of Honor (1984). In the United States he received all major dance awards, including the Dance Magazine Award (1967), the Capezio Award (1982), and the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award (1985), as well as Kennedy Center honors and the National Medal of Arts (both in 1987).

Known as “Nik” by everyone from his most prestigious acquaintances to students, Nikolais’s relaxed assurance and articulate speech inspired admiration and confidence. He avidly collected artifacts from around the world, often scouring flea markets and bazaars. He cooked, built furniture, and even cobbled together his charming country house in Southampton. He sketched, and he wrote eloquently, but except for a few essays his writing has not been published. He succumbed to prostate cancer at the age of eighty-two and is buried in Pére Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Nikolais’s extensive archives will be available at Ohio University Libraries, Athens, Ohio, beginning in 2003. The World of Alwin Nikolais, a five-volume video record of his choreography, is distributed by Nikolais/Louis Foundation for Dance in New York City. No full-scale biography has been written, but Nikolais figures in all accounts of late twentieth-century American modern dance. A monograph edited by Marcia B. Siegel, “Nik: A Documentary,” was published by Dance Perspectives (spring 1971), and his essay “No Man from Mars” is contained in Selma Jeanne Cohen, The Modern Dance: Seven Statements of Belief. An obituary is in the New York Times (10 May 1993). A documentary film by Christian Blackwood, Nik and Murray (1987), was produced for PBS television as part of the American Masters series.

Claudia Gitelman

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Nikolais, Alwin Theodore

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