Alwin Nikolais (1910- 1993)

"I began to establish my philosophy of man being a fellow traveler within the total universal mechanism rather than the god from which things flowed. The idea was both humiliating and grandizing. He lost his dominance but instead became a kinsman to the universe." In the late forties while Alwin Nikolais' pedagogy was germinating he simultaneously created, developed and codified a new modern-dance vocabulary and technique. Consequently, he inaugurated his profoundly abstract theater of dance incorporating a concept of total theater which begins with the dancer and combines a polygamy of motion, sound, color, shapes, lights, illusions and events. Without a doubt, Nikolais' theories rebelled against the psycho-dramatic depictions of his matriarchal modern-dance predecessors. In essence, Nik, as he was affectionately known, was the number one pioneer in the kinetic and visual multi-media dance expression that exploded in the 1950's.
The son of a Russian father and a German mother, Nikolais was raised in the rural New England setting of Southington, Connecticut. By the time he was 16, he was improvising on the organ accompanying the human action for silent films. In 1933, at the age of 23, he attended a performance of Mary Wigman which revolutionized his life. From 1937-40 he studied at the Bennington Summer School of Dance with Hanya Holm, who was Wigman's disciple. Holm became Nikolais' most influential teacher and later she taught at his school until 1985.
Nikolais' dance studies were briefly interrupted when he enlisted in the U.S. Army during WWII. In fact, the Invasion of Normandy, in particular, sobered and focused his artistic mission. At the time he even invented his own version of dance notation called choreoscript. After being discharged in 1945, he resumed his dance studies with Holm, dancing in her company and eventually becoming her assistant. When he retired from performing in the early 1950's he devoted himself exclusively to teaching and choreography.
In 1948, through Holm's recommendation Nikolais took a teaching job at the Henry Street Settlement on the lower east side of Manhattan becoming the co-director the following year. In 1949, while teaching at Colorado College for Holm's Summer School of Dance, he met his muse, protégé and life-long companion, Murray Louis. Returning to Henry Street Playhouse for the next 20 years, Nik, with Louis as his lead dancer, erected a superb dance company which explored abstraction as well as the naked simplicity of movement. First with the Playhouse Dance Company which became the Alwin Nikolais Dance Company he consolidated these German modern dance ideas that were developed by Rudolf Laban, inherited by Wigman, and expanded upon by Holm. One of Nik's immense paradoxes and dichotomies is that he taught the absolute purity of movement yet his choreographic output utilized the most complex of theatrical forms. Some of his terrifically imaginative choreography of his over 100 works can be recognized in Noumenon ('53), Kaleidoscope ('56), Tensile Involvement ('59), Imago ('63), Sactum ('64), Tower ('65), Scenario ('71), Gallery ('78), Crucible ('85), and his gorgeous final work, Aurora of 1992.
After Nik left the Henry Street Settlement, his company became an international touring sensation of multi-media dance art. Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, Nikolais' distinguished dynamics of abstract theater dance have been documented and acknowledged as his major contribution to 20th century modern-dance history. The New York Times succinctly summed it up, "Obviously, he is one of the most important men ever to hit theater dance."

Robert Tracy