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Alwin Nikolais was an innovative American choreographer who challenged traditional ideas about the role of the dancer. In the 1930s, he directed the Hartford Parks Marionette Theatre in Connecticut. He later studied with Hanya Holm and performed in her company. In 1948, Nikolais was invited to found a dance school at the Henry Street Playhouse in New York. He also started his own dance company, the Nikolais Dance Theater. One of the company's dancers, Murray Louis, became closely identified with the company and collaborated with Nikolais for over forty years.
Nikolais' artistic mandate was for meaning to be conveyed strictly through movement. He characterized his stage presentations as “decentralizing” the dancer, so that humans were only one of the theatrical elements on stage. Consequently, during the 1950s, his choreography became increasingly abstract. In Masks, Props and Mobiles (1953), for instance, his dancers wore large costumes that obscured the shapes of their bodies. In works like Prism (1956), he used the dancers' bodies as screens onto which he projected abstract moving images.
Multi-talented, Nikolais created all aspects of his productions, from choreography to costume design, and from lighting to musical composition. (Nikolais embraced electronic music and experimented with the possibilities of the Moog synthesizer in the 1960s.) By the time of his death in 1993, he had created over 100 choreographic productions. Nikolais's choreography was particularly popular with audiences in Paris. In the 1970s, he was invited to help organize the Centre Nationale de Danse Contemporain in Angers. In 1980, his work Schema premiered at the Paris Opéra.
Twenty years after launching his school, Nikolais moved his organization to midtown Manhattan and renamed it the Nikolais-Louis Foundation for Dance. The Foundation was an umbrella for the Nikolais Dance Theater, The Murray Louis Dance Company, The School and Chimerafilm (an audio-visual component). After Nikolais died, the Foundation consolidated and later phased out its dance companies. The Nikolais-Louis Foundation for Dance currently collaborates with the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company to perform the choreography of Nikolais and Louis. The School has been reinvented as a mobile organization that travels around the United States offering workshops to students who do not live in New York City.
Nikolais, Alwin. Nik, A Documentary. Ed. Marica B. Siegel. New York: Dance Perspectives Foundation, 1971.
Pedroni, Francesca. Alwin Nikolais. Palermo: L’Epos, 2000.