It was August 1976 at the Beacon Theater in New York. A white-haired man dressed in white stepped gingerly out of the wings to take a bow. The audience, which filled little more than half the vast orchestra section, rose in tribute to Alwin Nikolais, whose Dance Theatre's 25th anniversary season had just completed its final performance and who has been called "perhaps America's least appreciated genius."
The modern choreographer, composer, and designer was also called a "magician," a "wizard," "the P.T. Barnum, the Tome Swift, the Yellow Submarine of dance," the father of multimedia," an acknowledged pioneer in the use of lighting, design and imaginative stage props, who in his dances, created a total theatre of shape, sound, motion, color and light and not only inverted the choreography but the electronic music, costumes, and lighting design as well." He was also known, to those who know him, as "Nik."
He created dozens of visual masterpieces that influenced generations of choreographers. His work was acknowledged with a National Medal of Arts, presented by former president Regan during a White House ceremony in 1987; a Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award, 1985; a decoration as a Knight of the Legion of Honor, France, 1984; a Capazio Award for Career Excellence, 1982; a Circulo de Criticos Award, Chile, 1973; and in 1968, Emmy and Dance magazine awards.
Of Russian ancestry, Nikolais was the youngest of six and studied piano along with his siblings. He was good enough, in fact, to play piano and organ when he was 16 at the neighboring Westport Movie House during the showing of silent films, an apprenticeship which developed his sensitivity to gesture and mood and refined his ability to improvise as an accompaniment to human action. With the advent of "talking pictures" in 1929, Nikolais lost his job and returned to Southington, where he accompanied dance classes and played at roadside inns. He also gave piano lessons and began studying acting privately.
In 1933, he attended a performance by German dancer Mary Wigman at New Haven's Schubert Theater. "Spellbound," consequently he went to her former student Truda Kaschmann to study percussion, but she persuaded him that he ought to learn dancing as well. While taking dance classes, Nikolais worked as director of the Hartford Parks Marionette Theatre, a post he held from 1935-1937.
He later recalled: "I learned a lot from those puppets. They are all motion and no nerves. I found out that art is motion, not emotion."
In 1937, he founded his own dance company and school in Hartford, where he choreographed, danced, and taught. In 1940, he received his first commission as a choreographer--along with his first modern dance teacher, Truda Kaschmann--to create a ballet. Two years later, Nikolais was inducted into the Army and sent overseas. Following World War II, he relocated in New York City where he studied with Hanya Holm, eventually becoming her assistant. In 1948, he was appointed Director of Henry Street Playhouse and formed the Playhouse Dance Company, later known as the Nikolais Dance Theatre.
Utilizing his war experiences in his dance, he began to develop his own world of abstract dance theatre portraying man as part of a total environment, placing his work in another realm which was previously untouched by choreographers. It was at this time that he defined dance as "the art of motion which left on its own merits becomes the message as well as the medium." His total dance theatre had begun to take shape and form.
Among his best known early works are Tensile Involvement (1953) and Kaleidoscope (1956). The latter was hailed as "evidence of a new force in the modern dance world."
In 1956, the Company was invited to its first of many appearances at the American Dance Festival, where it established itself in the forefront of contemporary dance in the United States. Nikolais' impact on dance grew internationally with the Company's 1968 Paris season, which was followed by performances throughout the world. In 1978, the French National Ministry of Culture invited Nikolais to form the Centre Nationals de Dance Contemporaire in Angers, France, and in December 1980, he created his 99th choreographic work, Scheme, for the Paris Opera. At the same time, his choreography for an opera by Gian Carlo Menotti was being staged at the Vienna Staatsoper. The French critics' appraisal of Nikolais as "the most original exponent of American contemporary dance," was echoed throughout Europe and on subsequent tours to South America and the Far East.
Included in his long list of 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). In 1987, Nik and Murray, a documentary film by Christain Blackwood, aired on American Master.
Over the course of his career, Alwin Nikolais blended his many talents into a single aesthetic force and continued to challenge himself while creating dances, proving the verity of one critic's statement: "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."