Dance Writing

March 04, 2015

Who Was Alwin Nikolais?

by Julia Sloane’15

Alwin Nikolais, a performer and choreographer in the mid 1900's, was known for his technological advances and mixed media approaches, reminiscent of Loie Fuller, as well as the dehumanized quality of his works. In response to questions concerning his career, he writes, “I began to establish my philosophy of man being a fellow traveler within the total universal mechanism rather than the god from which all things flowed” (Brown, Mindlin, & Woodford, The Vision of Modern Dance, 117). Nikolais, who was unimpressed with the themes of self-expression that were prominent in the 1940's, decided to explore an opposing realm. He was not interested in creating work about man, and he did not think man should be put on a pedestal, as he perceived was happening in most of the art of his time. Man was not, in his eyes, equivalent to the god that western religions worshiped. Whereas man was seen as an in-flesh version of this god, according to what Nikolais was observing, Nikolais was interested in the humble concept that man was just one of many parts in an infinite universe, no more important than any other part. All religious and scientific gains that had happened or were happening (Darwin, Einstein) only perpetuated this notion that man was the most significant creature, and Nikolais used these same concepts inversely to advocate for humility of man.

To put his philosophy into practice, Nikolais began using what he called his “total theater concept” (Brown, Mindlin, & Woodford, 116). He was interested in the expansion of the dancer/human on stage—into a form that reflected his idea of man being simply a traveler in the universe. Nikolais' works, which were characterized by full body costumes that completely hid the dancer, also integrated masks and props. He writes, “. . . [I used] the masks, to have the dancer become something else; and props, to extend his physical size in space” (Brown, Mindlin, & Woodford, 116). Nikolais explored with these extra elements in order to make work that was neither self-obsessed, self-reflected, nor self-expressive, and communicated this to its' viewers. Often, these elements caused his dancers' to appear so outlandish that they were reduced to a creature that was not quite human. This was in line with his philosophy, however, because whereas he saw humans being equated with god, his concept of a “fellow traveler” did not necessarily refer to the present version of a human. These odd costumes were also gender neutral, and desexualized the bodies moving in space, another way he attempted to show man as equal, to everything, as well as the human race equal to itself.

Nikolais was a multitalented artist, and made not only the choreography for his pieces, but composed the electronic music, designed the lights, and crafted the costumes and props. The finished products of his efforts, like Tensile Involvement from 1953, consisted of only Nikolais' creations, except for the dancers moving through space and time. He idea of total theater was also “total Nikolais”—interesting coming from an artist who said he loathed self-expressive art. While his works were not emotional, they were still very much a reflection of himself, however abstracted he made this reflection. His philosophy on man as a traveler within the universe directly parallels the worlds he created with his works. His dancers were merely traveling through a universe created solely by Nikolais—they had no emotions, no clear gender, and moved in architectural gestures as opposed to pedestrian gestures. In a sense, Nikolais was the “god from which all things flowed,” at least in relation to his artistic creations. While his dancers were this futuristic version of man, Nikolais became the true god that controlled all aspects of the universe. His philosophy, quite literally, was manifested in the works he created, especially during his process of creation.