The Centenary of Alwin Nikolais's birth is being celebrated in 10 cities world-wide with New York engagements at Nikolais's original artistic home, the Henry Street Playhouse (now the Abrons Arts Center), May 1 and 2, and at The Joyce Theater, May 4-9. The spectacular double season of revivals, some dating back to 1953, will be performed by the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, the repository of the Nikolais Dance Theatre repertory. The Company's performances of Nikolais's dances are directed by Alberto Del Saz and Murray Louis.
At the Abrons, the Ririe-Woodbury Company will present "Tensile Involvement" (1955) in which the dancers manipulate a horizontal Maypole of shimmering elastic bands creating cat's cradles and astonishing geometric shapes as
they wind and unwind their way through an ever-changing web of ribbon. Add to that two classics from 1953-"Noumenon" and "Kaleidoscope." In "Noumenon," a trio, the dancers' bodies are encased from head to toe in stretchable fabric, transforming them into creatures from outer space, blobs beneath a microscope, or surreal ghosts-take your pick. In "Kaleidoscope," another masterpiece of imagination, the dancers' movements turn the simple props into feats of magical wit. The Ririe-Woodbury dancers will perform five sections from "Imago" (1968), subtitled "The City Curious." In this dance that brims with visual surprise, the dance, performers and scenery are inseparable partners. "Tensile Involvement," "Noumenon," and "Kaleidoscope" all received their world premieres at the Henry Street Playhouse.
The Centennial continues at The Joyce Theater May 4-9, featuring yet another program affirming Nikolais's prophetic contribution to contemporary dance. Wild characters abound in "Liturgies" (1983): a sorcerer spinning in air surrounded by an undulating "sea," or an exotic bird-figures subsumed by a brilliant matrix. The dance suggests man bullied by fate. "Crucible" (1985)-another work whose dazzling magic belies Nikolais's philosophic belief that man is only a part of the universe. Suggesting themes of Evolution, the dancers' arms, legs, and torsos morph into changing images and unexpected shapes as they appear and disappear from sight. The company will also present "Tower" (1968), the third section from "Vaudeville of the Elements," which premiered in 1965.
A seven-minute biographical film that was presented when Nikolais received the Kennedy Center Honor in 1987 will precede each program at the Abrons Art Center and The Joyce Theater.
Alwin Nikolais was born in 1910 in Southington, Connecticut. He studied piano at an early age and began his performing career as an organist accompanying silent films. As a young artist he gained skills in scenic design, acting, puppetry and music composition. A performance by German dancer Mary Wigman inspired him to study dance.
He received his early dance training at Bennington College, where he studied with Hanya Holm, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Louis Horst, and others. In 1940, in collaboration with Truda Kaschmann, his first modern dance teacher, Mr. Nikolais received a commission to create "Eight Column Line," his first ballet. The work was presented at one of the events of the Hartford social season that counted Salvador Dali and Leonide Massine as honorary patrons.
After teaching two years at his own studio and touring the US with dancers from Hanya Holm's company, Mr. Nikolais did active duty in the Army during World War II. He relocated to New York City following the war, where he resumed his studies with Miss Holm. Eventually he became Miss Holm's assistant, teaching at her New York school and at Colorado College during the summers. In 1948, Mr. Nikolais was appointed director of the Henry Street Playhouse where he formed The Playhouse Dance Company, later renamed the Nikolais Dance Theatre. At Henry Street, Mr. Nikolais began to develop his own world of abstract dance theatre, portraying man as part of a total environment, while redefining dance as "the art of motion which, left on its own merits, becomes the message as well as the medium." It was also at Henry Street Playhouse that Nikolais forged his relationship with Murray Louis who was to become a driving force in the young Playhouse Company, Mr. Nikolais's leading dancer and longtime collaborator.