Alwin Nikolais

Alwin Nikolais
Alwin Nikolais, photographed by Ralph E. Sandler

Alwin Nikolais (November 25, 1910 in Southington, Connecticut – May 8, 1993) was an American choreographer.

Nikolais 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. It was after attending a performance by the German dancer Mary Wigman that he was inspired to study dance. He received his early dance training at Bennington College from the great figures of the modern dance world: Hanya Holm, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Louis Horst, and others.

In 1940, in collaboration with Truda Kaschmann, his first modern dance teacher, Nikolais received a commission to create Eight Column Line, his first ballet. The work was presented at one of the events of Hartford social season that counted Salvador Dalí and Léonide Massine as honorary patrons and was well received.

After teaching two years at his own studio and touring the US with dancers from Hanya Holm's company, Nikolais did active duty in the Army during World War II. Nikolais relocated to New York City following the war and resumed studying with Hanya Holm. Eventually, he became Holm's assistant, teaching at her New York school and at Colorado College during the summers. In 1948, Nikolais was appointed director of the Henry Street Playhouse, where he formed the Playhouse Dance Company, later renamed and known as the Nikolais Dance Theatre. It was at Henry Street that Nikolais began to develop his own world of abstract dance theatre, portraying man as part of a total environment. Nikolais redefined 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 Mr. Nikolais was joined by Murray Louis, who was to become a driving force in the Playhouse Company, Nikolais' leading dancer and longtime collaborator.

In 1956, the Nikolais Dance Theater was invited to its first of many appearances at the American Dance Festival. With this, his total dance theatre had begun to take shape, and the company established itself in the forefront of American contemporary dance. With the company's 1968 Paris season at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Nikolais' impact on dance grew internationally. Following Paris, the company began performing around the world. Here began a long artistic relationship with the Théâtre de la Ville which began in 1971 and continues now after his death.

In 1978, the French National Ministry of Culture invited him to form the Centre Nationale de la Danse Contemporaine in Angers, France. In December 1980, he created his 99th choreographic work Schema, for the Paris Opera. At the same time, his choreography for an opera by Gian Carlo Menotti was being staged at the Vienna Staatsoper.

In 1987, Nikolais was awarded the National Medal of Arts, bestowed by President Ronald Reagan, and the Kennedy Center Honors, conferred during a three-day round of official Washington events, which culminated in a CBS telecast featuring the Nikolais Dance Theater. He received the City of Paris' highest honor, the Grande Medaille de Vermeille de la Ville de Paris, as well as medals from Seville, Spain, Athens, Greece, and 30 other cities both foreign and national as well as a special citation from New York City's Mayor, which he shared with Murray Louis. Often referred to as the American Patriarch of French modern dance, Nikolais is a knight of France's Legion of Honor and a commander of the Order of Arts and Letters.

His accolades from the world of arts and letters included the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award; the Capezio Award; Circulo Criticos Award, Chile; Emmy Citation Award; Dance Magazine Award; the Tiffany Award; and the American Dance Guild Award. In 2000 he was inducted into the National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame.

Nikolais was granted five honorary doctorate degrees, was twice designated a Guggenheim Fellow, and was the recipient of a three year creativity grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Mr. Nikolais and his work have been featured in numerous films and television programs in the US and abroad. In July 1987, Nik and Murray, a feature-length documentary film about Nikolais and Murray Louis, directed by Christian Blackwood, aired on the PBS series American Masters.

Nikolais was renowned as a master teacher, and his pedagogy is taught in schools and universities throughout the world. He died May 8, 1993, and is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

Among his best known performances are "Masks, Props, and Mobiles" (1953), "Totem" (1960), and "Count Down" (1979).

Nikolais purchased the first Moog analog synthesizer system.


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  • Alwin Nikolais — (* 25. November 1910 in Southington, Connecticut; † 8. Mai 1993 in Paris) war ein US amerikanischer Tänzer und Choreograf. Leben Alwin Nikolais war von russisch deutscher Herkunft. Er studierte modernen Tanz bei verschiedenen Lehrern, darunter… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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  • Nikolais, Alwin — born Nov. 25, 1910, Southington, Conn., U.S. died May 8, 1993, New York, N.Y. U.S. dancer, choreographer, composer, and designer. He studied modern dance with various teachers, including Hanya Holm, whose assistant he later became. In 1948 he… …   Universalium

  • Nikolais, Alwin — (25 nov. 1910, Southington, Conn., EE.UU.–8 may. 1993, Nueva York, N.Y.). Bailarín, coreógrafo, compositor y diseñador estadounidense. Estudió danza moderna con varios profesores, entre ellos Hanya Holm, de quien más tarde fue ayudante. En 1948… …   Enciclopedia Universal

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