Theater archives

A Look Back at the Work of Alwin Nikolais


Picture this: Human arms appear over the top of a slanting mirror wall about four feet high; as they stretch up, they acquire reflections joined to them at the armpit. Soon we’re watching wormy double-handed arms, or legs with feet at both ends, squabbling or swaying harmoniously. Eventually, like the bisected royalty on a deck of cards, 10 dancers’ nude upper torsos appear, reflected in a seductively illuminated pond. This is Crucible (1985) by Alwin Nikolais (1910–1993).

In 1971, Nikolais—fuming over some people’s charge that he “dehumanized” his dancers—wrote 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.” His glowing, candy-colored visions of transformed creatures had become a fetching alternative to the wrenching psychodramas that dominated modern dance in the 1950s.

Those who trekked down to the Henry Street Playhouse (now part of the Abrons Art Center) in the ’50s remember Nikolais sitting in a box angled out from the balcony—pressing a tape recorder’s buttons to play the musique concrète he had devised and cueing the lighting effects he had designed to transform the dancers, sketches of whose costumes filled his notebooks.

Nikolais’s interest in abstraction, as well as his skill at controlling all the elements of a production, may have been nourished in the puppet theater he created as a young man. But at Henry Street (his company’s home until 1970), he had bright, imaginative living dancers to fuel his experiments—choreographer Murray Louis, his muse and partner, prominent among them. During this centennial year of his birth, thanks to Louis and Alberto del Saz (artistic directors of the Nikolais/Louis Foundation for Dance), Salt Lake City’s Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company (a repository for Nik’s works) will show some of these pieces in cities around the world. Those unfamiliar with them may recognize the choreographer’s influence: Pilobolus, Momix, and even Cirque de Soleil’s spectacles have—in various ways—learned from him the pleasure we take in seeing bodies looking unlike themselves.

Recent performances, both at the Abrons and at the Joyce, included Tensile Involvement (1955). In it, 10 rushing dancers build cat’s cradles of wide elastic ribbons that stretch from wing to wing of the stage. A man, leaping like a conjuror at the center, can gather them into a huge symmetrical web. Suddenly each strip becomes a picture frame for a dancer, and these portraits tilt in response to the rhythms of the electronic music. Nikolais’s scores are intimately tied to each dance, although you often sense underneath their burblings and occasional soundbursts a living, festering, waiting-to-explode earth.

Nikolais usually worked in the suite form—breaking an idea into loosely linked variations. Occasionally, you’ve had enough of one and are greedy for the next, but mostly you marvel at the kaleidoscopic permutations of mobile, costumed bodies; shadows; slide projections; and light. In the opening from Liturgies (1985) at the Joyce, against a black-and-white backdrop showing what could be bare trees, the dancers begin in a squat, bouncing slightly up and down, their straight arms winging to the side. As the choreography develops, they spin one at a time, creating bubbles in the unison order. When later they run in a big square, the lighting turns those at the front of the stage red, while those at the back speed through a blue zone.

The Ririe-Woodbury dancers presented only excerpts from Liturgies, but you can posit religious connections in “Effigy”; one man braces and turns a T-topped pole on which another climbs and hangs (Aaron Draper and Caine Keenan are the performers). “Reliquary” hints at saintly ordeals, with a wild-haired creature (Andrea Dispenziere) roped to a pole like a marionette and borne in by two men. And the stupendous partial masks and stiff silver costumes worn by three women in “Carillon” transform each of them into a stylized cluster of bells.

Nikolais’s greatest pieces (Tent, for one) not only beguile our senses, but stir us with images from dreams and nightmares. By way of contrast, Tower (from the 1965 Vaudeville of the Elements) sheds light on the engaging dancers’ personalities. Like the builders of the apocryphal Tower of Babel, they chatter with gusto to one another and us, while swinging or lounging on their individual metal fences. When they build a corral (with gates to signify who’s in and who’s out), they’re a seething bouquet in their bright-colored unitards. This is one of Nikolais’s milder apocalyptic works, yet as soon as a tower is erected, there’s a crash, a blaze of light, a burst of smoke, and a plunge into darkness.

In the 1970s, his dances enthralled a stoned generation. They still offer as fine a psychedelic turn-on as anything you might want to smoke.