Thursday, April 12, 2012

Why I Love Nikolais

           The reason that I chose Alwin Nikolais was because of his utilization of technology and multimedia within his dances. My Father is a structural engineer. Growing up, I was exposed to a lot of technology, science, and mathematics. This made me very interested in the shapes and structures of the man-made world. My Mother was an environmental advocate for the government. Growing up, I was exposed to plants, animals, and nature. Thus I was also exposed to the shapes and structures of the natural world. I feel that Nikolais’ approach to dance making is not only about the use and blend of technology with movement, but also shapes and the effects that these shapes can make. I enjoy the shapes and effects that Nikolais’ work, and how they make me feel as an audience member.

               I believe that the public should take notice of Alwin Nikolais because he is truly one of the Founding Fathers of contemporary modern dance. His works are not only innovative, but uniquely original. Much of his work does not have a contemporary counterpart; it is uniquely his own.

         Many contemporary dance companies take pages out of Alwin Nikolais book. One company in particular is Pilobolus. Although Pilobolus does tend to use non-dancers, unlike Nikolais whose dancers were highly trained, much of the company’s works are highly technological, unique costumes, and the choreography was meant to create movements and shapes on stage. Besides Pilobolus, many dance companies today utilize multimedia technology, strange/elaborate costume, and unique movement; all concepts directly descend form the Alwin Nikolais Dance Company. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Choreographic Influences

Alwin Nikolais learned music from studying piano and accompanying silent films. He learned his early performance skills by watching German dancer Mary Wigman perform. As a young child, Nikolais was also worked at a theater where he was extensively exposed to puppetry. His later choreography mimicked the innovation set forth by Loie Fuller who utilized costume, lighting and stage design to transform the performer from a person dancing to something more abstract. He studied dance at Bennington College where he was exposed to Hanya Holm, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Louis Horst, among many others. His first ballet, Eight Column Line, was a commission from Truda Kaschmann in 1940. It was originally presented at the Hartford Society, some of its members included Salvador Dali and Leonide Massine.

Doris Humphrey
Martha Graham
Hanya Holm
Alwin Nikolais- "Noumenon"

               During World War II, Alwin Nikolais served in the Army as a master sergeant. While on active duty, he was in charge of criminal investigation. After the end of the war, Nikolais returned to New York City to resume studying with Hanya Holm; he eventually became her assistant. He taught at Colorado College during the summers, and the rest of the year lived and taught at Holm’s school in New York City.
               In 1948, Alwin Nikolais was appointed director of the Henry Street Playhouse. Here he formed the Playhouse Dance Company, which was later renamed the Nikolais Dance Theatre. This afforded Nikolais with the opportunity to present his own works and ideas. He enjoyed portraying the dancers as part of their environment, as abstract additions to the stage rather than simply performing on the stage. The mover becomes a part of their environment. He is best known for redefining the art of dance as “the art of motion which, left on its own merits, becomes the message as well as the medium.” It was here at the Henry Street Playhouse that Nikolais also met Murray Louis, the company’s leading dancer, collaborator and longtime friend.
               Nikolais Dance Theatre achieved national recognition in 1956 when they received their first invitation to the American Dance Festival. Then in 1968 the company achieved international greatness when they were asked to perform in Paris with Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The company also maintains a long standing relationship with the Théâtre de la Ville since 1971 and even now despite Alwin Nikolais’ death. In December 1980, Alwin Nikolais was choreographing his ninty-ninth work, Schema, for the Paris Opera, and at the same time was working with Gian Carlo Menotti on an opera to be performed at the Vienna Staatsoper. 
               Alwin Nikolais has received several prestigious commendations all around the world for his work in the arts. He is known as the “father of multi-media theater.” He is also often referred to as  the “American Patriarch of French Modern Dance”, and was knighted in France’s Legion of Honor and a commander of the Order of Arts and Letters. Almost all of Nikolais' choreography utilized break through technology of its time including costume design, lighting design, set design, and musical composition. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

Works and Collaborations

               Alwin Nikolais pioneered dance and multimedia for almost sixty years. Some of his best known works were “Masks, Props, and Mobiles” (1953), “Totem” (1960), and “Count Down” (1979). Nikolais liked to challenge his dancers by making them perform in and around elaborate props and costumes. “Nikolais viewed the dancer not as an artist of self-expression, but as a talent who could investigate the properties of physical space and movement.” (PBS American Masters Series, online)
Alwin Nikolais was teaching in Colorado in 1949 when he met Murray Louis, who greatly impressed Nikolais. Together, they began to work on the idea of “Decentralization” or “depersonalizing dancers through costume and design they could be liberated from their own forms.” (PBS American Masters Series, online) They began to make pieces that shifted the audience’s attentions away from one single dancer and forced them to focus on the entire production, including sound collage, projection and costume.
Upon returning to New York City, Murray Louis began to dance both with the Nikolais Dance Theater, as well as starting his own, The Murray Louis Dance Company. Unlike Nikolais, Louis both choreographed and performed in his works. The forty year relationship and collaboration between Nikolais and Louis allowed for “The Murray Louis Dance Company and the Nikolais Dance Theater [to create] a dialogue that pushed the boundaries of contemporary avant-garde dance.”  (PBS American Masters Series, online)
Both artists were fond of works that brought together two seemingly unrelated forms of entertainment. One such example is the 1978 performance of Nikolais’ a “Ceremony for Bird People” on a city street in France. For this performance, Nikolais combined acrobatics done from ropes hanging on trees coupled with a float that passed along the city street. The use of acrobats rather than trained modern dancers is also an example of how Nikolais strove to “decentralize” what it meant to be performing dance. 

A list of his works includes:

Tensile Involvement (1953) 
Noumenon (1953) 
Kaleidoscope (1953) 
Prism (1956) 
Totem (1959) 
Allegory (1959) 
Imago (1963) 
Vaudeville of the Elements (1965) 
Sanctum (1964) 
Somniloquy (1967) 
Triptych (1967) 
Tent (1968) 
Echo (1969)
Structures (1970) 
Scenario (1971) 
Grotto (1973) 
Tryad and Styx (1976) 
Gallery (1978) 
The Mechanical Organ (1980) 
Persons and Structures (1984) 
Video Games (for the 1984 Olympics) 
Contact (1985) 
Crucible (1985) 
Aurora (1992)

Chronology of Choreographic Works by Alwin Nikolais

Link to the video of Nikolais' “Sorcerer” created in 1960.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Brief Biography

Alwin Nikolais was born in Southington, Connecticut on November 25, 1910. Nikolais was born of Russian ancestry. He and his siblings all studied piano starting at a very young age. He was allowed to apprentice at a movie house playing piano for silent films. This exposure gave him an affinity for gesture, mood, improvisation, and human movement. In 1929, Nikolais had lost his job playing in the cinema and returned home. There, he continued playing piano but this time for dance classes and roadside inns, while also taking courses in acting on the side.

In 1933 Alwin Nikolais attended a performance by Mary Wigman at the New Haven’s Schubert Theater. He was so inspired, that he asked Truda Kaschmann to teach him percussion. She agreed, but only if he also learned to dance.

Alwin Nikolais took the job of Director of the Hartford Parks Maionette Theatre from 1935-1937. It was here that he learned a lot about puppetry as a performance art. At the end of his run as Director, Nikolais took the opportunity to found his own dance company and school in Hartford. Here he choreographed, danced and taught. In 1940 Nikolais received his first commission to create a ballet with his teacher Truda Kaschmann.

Then suddenly, in 1942, Alwin Nikolais was drafted into the Army and sent overseas. With the end of the war, Nikolais moved to New York City. While in New York City, he studied with Hanya Holm and eventually became her assistant. In 1948, Nikolais became the Director of the Henry Street Playhouse. Here he formed the Playhouse Dance Company, which eventually became known as the Nikolais Dance Theatre. Nikolais’ company truly began to develop when he started to integrate his war-time experiences to create surreal worlds onstage. Some of his most famous works are Tensile Involvement (1953) and Kaleidoscope (1956).

By 1956, Nikolais Dance Company had been invited to the American Dance Festival, which established them in the world of American Contemporary Dance. And in 1968 they became recognized internationally when they traveled to Paris. From there, in 1978, the French Ministry of Culture invited Nikolais to help in forming Centre Nationals de Dance Contemporaire in Angers, France. In December of 1980, he created his 99th choreographic work, Scheme, for the Paris Opera. After several other notable works all around Europe, the company began a tour of the World including South America and the Far East.

He is often called “America’s least appreciated genius”. Nikolais is a modern choreographer, composure, and designer. He is seen as “the Father of multimedia” and acknowledged as one of the pioneers in lighting, design, and imaginative stage props. Known for creating a total theatre experience through shape, sound, motion, color, and lighting, he also completely inverted the electronic music, costumes, and lighting design.

In addition to the aforementioned works, on the list of Alwin Nikolais most celebrated repertory is Allegory (1959),  Totem (1960),  Imago (1963),  Sanctum (1964), Tent (1968), Crossfade (1974), Gallery (1978), Mechanical Organ (1982), Graph (1984), Illusive Visions (1985) and Velocities (1986).  He was also subject of a documentary film by Christian Blackwood in 1987 called Nik and Murray.

Alwin Nikolais was awarded both an Emmy Citation and Dance Magazine award in 1968, a Circulo de Criticos award in Chile in 1973. In 1982, he was given a Capezio Award for Career Excellence. He was decorated as a Knight of the Legion of Honor in France in 1984. In 1985, Nikolais won a Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award. In 1987, Alwin Nikolais was awarded the National Medal of the Arts by former President Regan at the White House.

He continued working in the theater creating new works and inspiring young artists all around the world until his death on May 8, 1993.

"No one interested in the arts of the theater can afford to ignore Mr. Nikolais, who combines the roles of poet and showman in a strangely meaningful way." –Unknown Critic

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Historical Influences

Oskar Schlemmer's "Triadisches Ballett" (Triadic Ballet)

Loie Fuller's "Danse Serpentine"

          Alwin Nikolais' works find similar root the work of his predecessors. Two such artists were Loie Fuller and Oskar Schlemmer. Just as with Nikolais' choreography, these two artists sought to transform the dancer from a mere person dancing on a stage, into a character or supernatural being. Thus the audience is no longer attending the theater simply to see dance, but rather to observe these characters in their natural setting. All three artists utilized lights, props, and costumes to not only transform the performers but also to  transform the stage into a mysterious far-away or super-terrestrial environment. 

"Watching a Nikolais dance, you can imagine that you're peering through a microscope into a world of tiny organisms, gaily anthropomorphized; or perhaps it's a kaleidoscope you've glued your eye to; at other times the images might be inside a dreaming mind." (Time and the Dancing Image, Deborah Jowitt, pg. 356)

        One major difference between Alwin Nikolais and his predecessors was that "unlike [Oskar] Schlemmer... Nikolais uses a complex vocabulary of movement." (Time and the Dancing Image, Deborah Jowitt, pg. 354) Nikolais gave concrete meaning through movement vocabulary. This has also allowed for many of his pieces to survive the test of time and be reset with accuracy at a later date. Similar to Schlemmer yet different from Fuller, Nikolais never actually danced in his own works. Rather he sat on high running stage and lighting cues as if he were actually physically dictating the movements of each dancer like a puppeteer.  

        A variation between Loie Fuller and Alwin Nikolais was that "disguise [is] a fact, rather than metamorphosis as a process, is usually the focus of Nikolais' works." (Time and the Dancing Image, Deborah Jowitt, pg. 356) This quote posses the comparison that whereas with Fuller's works, where a woman was transformed into a flower or a butterfly before the audience's eyes, Nikolais' dancers are introduced to the audience already transformed. Also in Fuller's work, there was a celebration of femininity through not only her movement, but also her costumes. Contrary to that idea, Nikolais' "costumes rarely emphasize gender differences." (Time and the Dancing Image, Deborah Jowitt, pg. 357) Yet another technical difference between Fuller and Nikolais is how the audience is to perceive the transformation on stage.  With Fuller, the mechanism for the illusion is hidden, whereas Nikolais' work allows the audience to be aware of how the illusions are being created. 

University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee Department of Dance.

"Water Studies" performed in New York City in April 2011 for the Alwin Nikolais Centennial Celebration. 
Alwin Nikolais