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