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The Magus of Multimedia, Alwin Nikolais, Says the Future of Modern Dance Is in the Bag

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They may look like an errant band of hobgoblins, but when the Alwin Nikolais dancers do their sack-shrouded stuff in Noumenon, the tricks are part of the treat. The eye-teasing patterns created by their body movements are just the way Nikolais (right) conceived them. Described by an admiring theater critic as a “whacked-out Wizard of Oz,” Nikolais, now 68, is still in the vanguard of experimental choreography after three decades.

A pioneer in the use of slide projections, electronic synthesizers and light shows in his productions, Nikolais aims at a total theatrical experience in which sets and props are as important as human movement. The result is dance so abstract that some criticize it as “dehumanizing.” But others find that his integration of dancers and environment perfectly expresses today’s electronic age.

Such theories leave Nikolais befuddled. “I just created these works out of curiosity,” he insists. When he began more than 30 years ago, he felt that modern dance had “exhausted its sexual stories, the narrative choreography about sexual attractions. It was time to look at man from a different perspective. What I really created was the first unisex dance. There would be sound. There would be light. There would be color. Above all, there would be challenge.”

There was, and is, as his 10-member company (now starting a three-month U.S. tour) can attest. “One time,” trouper Gerald Otte recalls, “Nik made us dance in the dark. He swore he could see us, but we couldn’t even see each other.” Otte describes Nikolais’ approach as “frightening, powerful, never planned, a little bit of insanity and a lot of hard work—it’s a little like running the maze in The Shining.”

With impish humor, Nikolais contends he is just “an innocent Connecticut Yankee.” Born in Southington, the youngest of six children, Alwin Theodore was raised by a widowed mother preoccupied with saving the family’s baking factory. “I was a loner,” he confides. “My companion was my imagination.” At 18, he happened to attend a dance concert by the noted German expressionist Mary Wigman. “I was a country boy struck down by a vision,” he says.

He learned his craft by directing a marionette theater and through early classes with Louis Horst and Martha Graham. In 1942 the Army called. “Death and destruction aside,” he says, “the spectacle of the Normandy invasion was the first multimedia show I ever saw.” After the war he taught dance at the Henry Street Settlement in one of Lower Manhattan’s roughest districts and forged a disciplined troupe that drew the plaudits of uptown critics.

Today, aided by Murray Louis, for 13 years the company’s star dancer, Nikolais runs his school of some 200 students and 15 teachers, while his dance company schedules 125 performances a year worldwide. Of his 155th opus, now in progress, Nikolais says, “Lighting serves as the costumes, and sound seems to emanate from human bodies.” It’s typical Nikolais, but as trouper Jessica Sayre observes, “When I dance for Nik, I feel twice as tall, larger than life. And sometimes I have the eerie feeling that I may be working for Merlin.”