THE WORK of the choreographer Alwin Nikolais was an exuberant, original efflorescence of the German modern dance movement as transplanted to the United States. He was a total man of the theatre who masterfully created and controlled all aspects of his colourful, often playful, hi-tech mixed-media stage productions, as well as works for television. Never basing his work on his own dancing, which he gave up early on, 'Nik', as he was known, was a familiar figure as a white-haired wizard, genial but exacting, who made everything happen on-stage from the light booth, where he could supervise sound and lighting cues.
Nikolais' dances had a serious underlying theme. They placed humankind in a complete environment, and sometimes as part of an evolutionary process, rather than as the centre and measure of all things. This idea of man, he wrote, 'was both humiliating and grandising. He lost his domination but instead became kinsman to the universe.' Nikolais' works often symbolically pointed to the mess man has made of his stewardship of the planet.
He created figures - sometimes blobs that were not immediately recognisable as dancers' forms, due to innovative costuming that featured stretch fabrics - which might suggest plant and animal life or microbes or automata as well as humans. He set them in a magical stage-space created primarily by highly imaginative coloured lighting and abstract slide projections that might play over the figures as well as the backdrop. Movable flats created magical appearances and disappearences, and abstract props functioned as extensions of the body. He also created the music scores, an aural atmosphere of electronic burbles and blips.
An influential choreographer of historical importance, Nikolais is to be honoured with a retrospective of his work in July in New York at the Joyce Theatre. A compact disc of his electronic music compositions is to be released this month by CRI Records.
In his youth, Nikolais studied piano and organ and worked as a puppeteer. Puppetlike images were to surface repeatedly in his dance works. In his early twenties, after being intrigued by a performance of the German modern-dance pioneer Mary Wigman, and by her use of percussion, he began his dance training with a former Wigman student in the US, Trude Kaschmann. Later, at the influential Bennington School of the Dance in Vermont, he studied with the leading figures of the American modern dance movement, including Martha Graham, whose intense psychological probings he was to react against, and Hanya Holm, with whom he felt most in tune. Holm, the foremost representative of Wigman's work in the United States, was a leading dance figure in her own right who died just last year.
German modern dance's analytic approach to form and space, rather than its Expressionist side, attracted Nikolais. Although he never saw the abstract, geometrically based dances of the Bauhaus artist and choreographer Oscar Schlemmer, obvious affinities exist in their work.
After serving in the US Signal Corps in the Second World War and later acting as Holm's teaching assistant, Nikolais was appointed dance director of the Henry Street Settlement Playhouse, a neighbourhood arts centre on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that for many years provided a home base for his company and a place to mount his complex productions.
The exemplar of the Nikolais dancer was Murray Louis, a virtuoso of flexibility and deft and witty articulations of individual parts of the body. Louis, with whom Nikolais developed a lifelong professional and personal partnership, is also a well-known choreographer in his own right and long-time director of his own company.
Nikolais' company toured widely, with European seasons from 1968. They made their London debut in 1969. Nikolais was especially influential in France, where he founded the Centre de Danse Contemporaine at Angers, directing it from 1978 to 1981. In addition to numerous American awards, including the Kennedy Centre Honors and the National Medal of Arts, he was named Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur in 1985.
His dance theatre is often described as abstract; but while he avoided narrative and emotional expression on the part of the dancers, his own explanation of his position suggestions a kinship with the theories of the great Russian theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold: 'Dancers often get into the pitfall of emotion rather than motion,' Nikolais wrote. '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 approach - this impersonality of means toward meaningful ends - resembles that of his contemporaries in American dance George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham.
Although Nikolais was sometimes criticised for over-cuteness or, especially in the earlier part of his long and prolific career, for depersonalising and desexing the dancers on stage, he had many ardent admirers. Changing reactions to his work over the decades have been a kind of litmus test for the temper of the times. In the Fifties, his pieces were sometimes regarded as entertainments, counteracting the often lugubrious modern dance of Graham. In the Sixties, psychedelic properties were evident. As astronauts became familiar images, his odd figures came to seem normal. And, with the rise of green issues, his planetary view blending humans with their surroundings and criticising their environmental follies - sometimes culminating in the Armageddon-like disappearance of the figures - came to be seen as prescient.
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