Demiree Eastman March 16, 2014 Dance 461 Graham Brown/Caroline Prohosky Final Paper

Alwin Nikolais

Pioneer, technician, innovator, artist, or technological mastermind are some of the few descriptions that could be associated with Alwin Nikolais. While conducting research on this artist, I found myself being continually inspired by his views and motives. He was a man that wanted to break the norms of not only and dance and performance, but the way society thinks when it comes to self and entirety of life. When looking at the breakthrough of modern dance in the 1920’s and early 1930’s, there were dancers such as Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and more that created their own particular style of modern dance. There was the famous, “contract and release” method, “fall and recovery”, and “kinetic pantomime”. Nikolais wanted to do away with the mentality of that altogether and create a new way of viewing movement and dance. Sara Pearson, co-artistic director of the Pearson Widrig Dance Theater, expounds upon what she learned as she studied with Nikolais and Louis in the 1970’s. She stated, “You went to class with Nik and Murray to get in touch with the creative artist in you,” she says. “You did not go to learn a style, like you would with Graham. In their studios, there was such passion, such appetite to create. There was nowhere else I wanted to be. And it was because of the energy that Nik and Murray brought” (Adams).

The current artistic director of the Nikolais/Louis foundation, and a former dancer of Nikolais, Alberto del Saz integrates Nikolais’ same concepts as he teaches his legacy. “This material is about investigating who you are as a dancer or a choreographer. I try to allow dancers to find their own way to the essence of motion. I give them the information to allow them to make the right choices for themselves” (Adams). This shows that Nikolais didn’t own or desire a certain vocabulary or style. He wanted a different approach to dancing and choreographing that took a philosophical edge. It challenged each person to discover their own unique artistic voice. So with no strict style, one may think that Alwin may have not had a strong philosophy. The truth is, he had philosophies that he believed in greatly that shaped and formed his own unique artistic genius as it developed through the years. He based his choreography and performances on the concepts of “decentralizing” the dancer to create his philosophy of “total dance theater”. When looking at the aspect of “decentralization”, Nikolais wrote in a journal in 1971 that he "wanted man to be able to identify with things other than himself. This is the day of ecological and environmental visions. We must give up our naval contemplations long enough to take our places in space” (Jowitt). This meant that it wasn’t about just the dancer on stage. It wasn’t about their emotions or desires, it was about the movement they could create. He took the focus off of the personal drama, and made the entire show an integration of all aspects of a performance including lighting, staging and costuming. This is known as the concept of “total dance theater”.

So what is total dance theater? Nikolais proclaimed himself an artistic polygamist when it came to the integration of arts when he stated, "It is impossible for me to be a purist; my loves are too various for that," he wrote in an essay in 1966. "I look upon this polygamy of motion, shape, color and sound as the basis of the theater” (Anderson). Total dance theater encompasses all of the aspects of theater. It is more than just the dancer on stage. It is the lighting, the costuming, the space, and everything in between that makes up a dance performance. It does not solely rely on the performer. He was one of the pioneers of multimedia technology, and it was said to be that he was the “multi-media genius of his time”. One of the major aspects of his performances was lighting. According to Buchholtz, Nikolais would use various slide projectors in his pieces throughout the wings and different viewpoints of the theater to create different views. These projections would create a whole new dimension to “Total Dance Theater”. There would be different colors, different brightness, and different angles to create a wholeness and multi-dimensionality with lighting (Buchholtz). Nikolais did not only use average stage lighting. He used everything from black lighting, battery powered lighting, moving lights, and lanterns to illuminate his dancers (Grauert). Nikolais integrated light into every part of his creative process. It was such an important component that it became necessary for him to design his lighting as he choreographed. When it came to sound, Nikolais’s approach to sound technology is that of an artist, not that of a scientist. “He is able to operate freely, independent of other human agencies to produce what he senses. The facts of technology are his tools. But he uses these facts as he uses any other element of his theater art. He makes random connections, turns dials, listens to the results, and cares not a whit what diode produced it” (Graeurt).

Nikolais could score his pieces out of anything. He produced sounds that could come from everyday sounds and even out of the mouths of his performers. He was able to see the possibilities that could be produced from any aspect of life whether it be technology, random tools, or the human body. When it came to costuming, Nikolais had everything from plain bare feet, masks, stretchy bags, long fabrics, and hats dipped in chemicals to shape them into distorted shapes (Grauert). Every piece was a new creation and a new experience when it came to costuming. There was always the thought of what he could do next. In part of decentralizing the dancer through total dance theater there was the challenge of taking the focus away from one of the most emotional outputs of the body- the face. In that time of vaudevilles and minstrel shows, people would paint their faces in order to portray a certain race. “Whether positive or negative vibrations ensued in the spectator’s sensorium made little difference to Nikolais… Hence, his early treatment of the face was concerned not only with varying its uni-statement but also with preventing audiences from experiencing this sensory blocking. This use of makeup does not create character, but rather design, and is a part of the total concept of the dances in which it occurs” (Grauert). This again was an example of his incorporation of total dance theater. It was about the overall project rather than the performer themselves despite race or self. So with all of these new ideas, costumes, lighting, and decentralization of the dancers coming to the stage in the early development of Nikolais as an artist, it was the complete opposite of what people were used to seeing on the stages at the time. They were used to music that made sense, and stories portrayed by characters on stage that seemed easy to read through pantomime and entertainment.

So how did they take the new works that were coming out? There were many different opinions about what was being seen on stage in the early 40’s and 50’s. For example, The New York Time’s dance critic, John Martin, wrote that Nikolais's choreography was "highly evocative and full of atmosphere," but later wrote that "There is not an emotion anywhere on the premises." Some like George Beiswaner stated that "the props dance and the dancers prop." But he added: "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” (Anderson). There were many different opinions that scattered around as Nikolais’ works were spread throughout the years. However, the more and more that he created, the more possibilities of art were opened up. There was a different perception when it came to movement and overall theater. It made the audience and performer “take the focus off themselves and put it into what they are doing, why they are here” (Dillon). Although he may have had his rocky stages in performance and acceptance in the dance world, there is so much evidence of Nikolais’ influence in the dance world today. We use technology in so much of what we do. We use projections onto screens to add depth to pieces, there are groups using lights in their costumes to create a new way of viewing the body in darkness, there are extreme props being used to create a whole new set of movement, and there is constantly new music and sounds coming out for new choreography. Nikolais was not afraid to push the boundaries and step past the norms. He created a whole new way to look at creativity. There is so much that can be created when we integrate different forms of art such as light, sound, costume, staging, props, and more.

As we look into our day and age, we are starting to see that integration develop even more. There is a sense of total dance theater that can be seen. There are contemporary companies like Pilobolus who focus on total dance theater as they use shadows and sounds and bodies to create their masterworks. We see music shows incorporating lasers into their performances and different uses of light to create a whole new sense of discovery. Also, as we look into our biggest celebrities, we see their use of crazy costumes that step outside the norms. In an article entitled, “Lady Gaga has Nothing on Nikolais”, it states that “Nikolais was exploring the use of bizarre/amazing costumes way before pop musicians thought to do it” (Hanlon). It is completely true. We see artists coming out with new edgy looks, but it can be seen that Nikolais was one of the first pioneers to take a risky step in society and try something completely different than the world had seen before. Nikolais let the audience see a different perspective. He let them see something in a different way through different shapes, sounds and colors. When watching his pieces, it made me step back and think, “I am seeing these shapes move in such a different way inside these stretchy costumes, but yet I am feeling something at the same time.” He lets the body create something. He uses the structure and design of the human form to create something that we haven’t seen before. In conclusion, Nikolais was a great artist that influenced so much of the dance world and technological world as well. He stepped out of the box and took a risk of being different. He let his creativity run free and through that, opened up the door for others to think and create freely as well. He is an inspiration and milestone in dance as a whole that will influence so many dance artists of the future.

Works Cited:

Adams, Kathy. “Going Back in Multimedia Time: Universities across the country bring Alwin Nikolais to life.” Dance Magazine Jan. 2010: Print.

Anderson, Jack. "Alwin Nikolais, Versatile Pioneer Of Modern Dance, Is Dead at 82." The New York Times [New York City] 10 May 1993, Obituaries sec.: n. pag. Print.

Jowitt, Deborah. "A Look Back at the Work of Alwin Nikolais." The Village Voice. N.p., 18 May 2010. Print.

Grauert, Ruth E. “The Theatre of Alwin Nikolais.” Bearnstow Journal 1978. Web.

Dillon, Virginia. “The Legacy.” Alwin Nikolais Legacy Forum Oct. 2003. Print.

Pond-A Documentary. Dir. Joshua Buchholtz. Vimeo, 2012.

Hanlon, Khara. “Lady Gaga has Nothing on Nikolais.” Dance Magazine March. 2012: Print.