Monday, March 2, 2009

Alwin Nikolais


My total theater concept consciously started about 1950, although the seeds of it began much earlier I'm sure. First was expansion. I used masks and props-the masks, to have the dancer become something else; and props, to extend his physical size in space. (These latter were not instruments to be used as shovels or swords-but rather as extra bones and flesh.) I began to see the potentials of this new creature and in 1952 produced a program called Masks Props & Mobiles. I began to establish my philosophy of man being a fellow traveler within the total universal mechanism rather than the god from which all things flowed. The idea was both humiliating and aggrandizing. He lost his domination but instead became kinsman to the universe.
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Dancers often get into the pitfall of emotion rather than motion. To me motion is primary-it is the condition of motion which culminates into emotion. In other words it is our success or failure in action in time and space which culminates in emotion. This drama of action is universally understood by Chinese, Africans, South Americans and the Zulus. We do not have to be educated to understand the abstract language of motion, for motion is the stuff with which our every moment of life is preciously concerned. So in the final analysis the dancer is a specialist in the sensitivity to, the perception and the skilled execution of motion. Not movement but rather the qualified itinerary en route. The difference may be made even clearer by giving the example of two men walking from Hunter College to 42nd and Broadway. One man may accomplish it totally unaware of and imperceptive to the trip, having his mind solely on the arrival. He has simply moved from one location to another. The other may, bright-eyed and bright-brained, observe and sense all thru which he passes. He has more than moved-he is in motion.
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From The Vision of Modern Dance: In the Words of Its Creators
Edited by Jean Morrison Brown, Naomi Mindlin & Charles H. Woodford

Alwin Nikolais

Alwin Nikolais has been called choreography's Wizard of Oz. Nikolais himself said he was a choreographic polygamist because he sought "a polygamy of motion, shape, color, and sound." Whatever one called him, he was a creator of a multimedia form that made dazzling use of theatrical illusion.

Nikolais (1912-1993) was born in Southington, Connecticut, and as a young man worked as a puppeteer and as a pianist for silent films. A performance by Mary Wigman made him want to study with one of her disciples-but not primarily to learn dance. Rather, he was intrigued by her use of percussion instruments. He found a Wigman-trained teacher, Truda Kaschmann, in Hartford. His love of dance soon equaled his love of music, and he studied at the Bennington summer schools, where he was particularly impressed by Hanya Holm's teaching. After military service in World War II, he became her assistant.

In 1948, he joined the staff of the Henry Street Settlement Playhouse-the former Neighborhood Playhouse-and it remained his base until the late 196os, when he found larger quarters necessary. He turned the tiny Henry Street Playhouse into a magician's box of marvels. Playing theatrical conjuring tricks, he not only choreographed his productions, but also designed scenery, costumes, and lighting and composed their electronic scores.

Nikolais transformed the appearance of dancers by encasing them in fantastic constructions or by attaching sculptural shapes to their bodies. He also flooded dancers with changing light patterns so as to blur distinctions between illusion and reality and make it difficult for spectators to determine which shapes before them were real and which were shadows or slide projections. Nikolais's use of technology made him an artistic heir of Lole Fuller and Oskar Schlemmer.

Masks, Props and Mobiles (1953), Nikolais's first major multimedia effort, has a much-praised episode in which dancers encased in bags stretch themselves into odd shapes as they move. The shape of dancing bodies in Kaleidoscope (1962) was altered with the aid of discs, poles, paddles, hoops, straps, and capes. Nikolais subtitled Imago (1963) "The City Curious," and its inhabitants included scurrying robotlike figures, men with fantastically long arms who are hooked together as if in a giant chain, and men and women who move between lines of elastic tape stretched from one side of the stage to the other. At various points in Sanctum (1964), dancers had to swing from a trapeze, manipulate silver poles, and struggle to escape from enclosures that kept changing size.

Some of Nikolais's productions can be enjoyed simply as abstract studies in motion. Others possess thematic implications: the way a tower explodes after dancers have struggled to erect it in Tower (1965) brings to mind the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, and with the aid of slide projections Nikolais makes dancers resemble water plants and creatures in Pond (1982).

Echoing complaints once brought against Schlemmer, Nikolais's detractors contended that he dehumanized dancers. But George Beiswanger defended Nikolais's choreographic approach by pointing out that Nikolais "wants things to move, to be seen, and to be heard, and he wants the resulting aliveness of things to be apparent even when the things are dancers. Hence the props dance and the dancers prop (not that they do not dance as well). Now one may take this in two ways, as dehumanizing the dancer or as animizing the thing. I am inclined, perhaps perversely, to the latter view." 16 It can also be argued that, by uniting dancers with scenic effects, Nikolais choreographically expressed ecological concerns and that the harmonious or contentious encounters between dancers and objects are parables of ways in which people interact with their environment in the real world.

However one interprets them, Nikolais's productions are almost always entertaining. He not only resembles the Wizard of Oz, he is also akin to the Wizard's creator, L. Frank Baum, that lover of peculiar animated gadgets. Nikolais himself once admitted, "I am a compulsive creator-if you gave me a schnauzer, two Armenian chastity belts and a 19th-century dish pan-I would attempt to create something with them."

In addition to training dancers, the Nikolais studio has encouraged choreographers-among them Murray Louis and Phyllis Lamhut. Each has performed with the Nikolais company as well as in each other's works.

Louis, who was born in 1926, began his dance studies with Anna Halprin in San Francisco after military service during World War II. Back in his native New York, he became Nikolais's artistic associate in 1949 and has headed his own successful company, which on several occasions merged with that of Nikolais.

A remarkable virtuoso, Louis can isolate parts of his body and make his limbs move in various, even seemingly contradictory, ways, as if each had a will of its own. His less successful choreography can sometimes appear unduly twitchy. But when he is at his creative best, his dancing and that of his company can be precise and expertly timed, especially to comic effect.

Among his most acclaimed comic pieces are Junk Dances (1964), a portrait of a husband and wife (Louis and Lam hut) surviving marital vicissitudes in what can be interpreted either as a literal junkyard or a theatrical metaphor for an emotional trashpile, and Hoopla (1973), a tribute to circus acts. His works also extend from the somber all-male Calligraph for Martyrs (1961) to the lyrical Porcelain Dialogues (1974).

Lam hut, who was born on Manhattan's Lower East Side in 1933, received her early dance training at the Henry Street Settlement; although she has studied elsewhere, she has remained closely associated with Nikolais and Louis, as well as with the Hanya Holm Studio.
She first attracted attention as a deft comedienne, then expanded her scope to create large-scale ensembles with some of the fervor of the German Ausdruckstanz.

From Art Without Boundaries: The World of Modern Dance
By Jack Anderson

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