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.
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.