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


  1. I found it interesting I could connect certain things between Nikolais and Naharin. First of all they both had musical training when they were younger, and I believe this shows in both of their works. They both use music and movement in coexistence; each supporting the other. Also in the type of music they use there may be some use of classical instruments/conventional instruments, but there is also a use of the unconventional. In Naharin's work MAX, a piece he choreographed and composed for (under and alias), he used many different sounds for his score.
    Something else I found interesting, and more of a side note, but that both Naharin and Nikolais have been in the service. The difference in that Naharine found dance after his service at the age of 22; while Nikolais had been dancing before.
    One difference I am more making an inference on is their difference in choreographic values. Correct me if I'm wrong but it appears as though Nikolais was more interested in a multimedia aspect of performance. While movement was important it seems to have been a support for the illusions he could create through things like lighting, props, and costumes. I believe Naharin is more focused on the movement and the experience the dancers have within it. This is not saying Nikolais doesn't have similar interests it just seems he has a different focus.

  2. I agree that it is an interesting comparison between Narharin as a choreographer and Nikolais as a choreographer. As you stated before, Naharin was driven to his type of movement, Gaga, because of a back injury. I feel that Nikolais was inspired by his early explorations in puppetry. I think that both choreographers were attempting to elicit a "feeling" from their movement. Although Naharin was looking for that emotion to be felt within his dancers, and Nikolais was trying to get the audience to experience something.
    Nikolais was really invested in multimedia collaboration with his choreography, whereas Naharin preferred to study the body, though they both maintain an interest to the body in motion.
    I feel that there are many pieces of Naharin's that could stand alone, even if they were performed without emotion, although they would not be as interesting. Similarly, almost all of Nikolais' work must be performed with costumes, lighting and set for the true effects of the work to be communicated to the audience.