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Alwin Nikolai

Alwin Nikolai

Photo courtesy of: Ohio University Libraries

Nikolai Exhibit

This photo is among treasures found in the Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis Dance Collection, housed on the fifth floor of Alden Library.

Photo courtesy of: Ohio University Libraries

Nikolai Exhibit

Nikolais' choreography created a whole new technique of dance by incorporating everyday objects and material and transforming them into living, breathing extensions of the human body.

Photo courtesy of: Ohio University Libraries

Featured Stories


Alwin Nikolais: A Life Worth Remembering


This story originally ran in the fall 2010 edition of Gatherings, a publication of the Ohio University Libraries.

This November is the 100th birthday celebration of the legendary modern dance choreographer, designer and teacher, Alwin Nikolais.

Coined the “father of multimedia,” Nikolais’ career spanned 55 years and included everything from choreographing dance and opera, to designing costumes and props, to composing music and creating sets. His choreography created a whole new technique of dance by incorporating everyday objects and material and transforming them into living, breathing extensions of the human body.

Nikolais was the first choreographer to use a Moog synthesizer, an early electronic keyboard that utilizes  non-traditional musical sounds.  He then partnered it with the limited technology of the day to create a visual light show using hundreds of slides, light cues and color to completely transform the environment of the stage—before it became the “standard repertoire” for a generation of American rock-n-roll youth.  

However, it was his teaching that was most important to him. He encouraged individuals to find their own artistic voice, a very different approach from ballet’s centuries-old tradition that teaches vocabulary first and foremost. This individualism led many of his company dancers to pursue their own distinctive choreography, as was the case for Gladys Bailin, former director of the School of Dance at Ohio University, and for Murray Louis who, in 1953, formed the Murray Louis Dance Company.  Years later Louis and Nikolais merged companies to form a single dance company–Murray Louis and Nikolais Dance.  

It was the value that Louis and Nikolais placed on education and their mutual lifelong friendship with Gladys Bailin that guided Louis to donate 400 cubic feet of historical materials (manuscripts, photographs, artifacts, audio and film recordings, postcards, and posters) from Murray Louis and Nikolais Dance to Ohio University Libraries.  

The dance collection, housed for over a decade in Alden Library, “has become a major research venue for scholars, dance historians and students both nationally and internationally. Virtually every artifact during the careers of Nikolais and Louis [is here],” said Gladys Bailin.

She continued, “Since the Nikolais and Louis companies no longer exist, the library archives makes these wonderful works available to those interested in [studying] one of the most influential dance makers of the 20th Century.”

Many treasures are found in the Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis Dance Collection housed on the fifth floor of Alden Library, and many riches await scholars and students who are still influenced by Nikolais and his contribution to the world of dance and multimedia.  

Happy 100th Birthday, Alwin Nikolais!


Nikolais celebrates 100 years

Ohio University Libraries will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of Alwin Nikolais’ birth by partnering with the New York Public Library on an exhibition called Alwin Nikolais’ Total Theater in Motion. The display can be seen in the New York Performing Arts Library’s Astor Gallery from Oct. 21 through Jan. 15.

 

I met Alwin Nikolais on the fifth floor of Alden Library

It’s true that the American modern dance legend has been dead 17 years, but somehow that little detail didn’t prevent me from getting to know the man. 

Up in Archives and Special Collections, I heard his voice, held his personal photographs, watched his dances, and read page after page of his life story, spanning more than eight decades. Nikolais may not have been there in the flesh, but in spirit he was still alive—and kicking.

As a graduate student in journalism researching Nikolais for a dance history class, my goal was to understand the life events and personal beliefs that may have contributed to his philosophy of dance; something he called “decentralization.”

His approach was revolutionary. It shunted aside conventional modern dance’s reliance on emotion and narrative to probe instead what he called “motional design” and to scatter the viewer’s attention away from a single focal point on stage. How did he come up with that vision? What informed his deep convictions? The many boxes containing Nikolais’ unpublished autobiography, with folders organized by year, answered these questions—and more—all in his own words and sometimes in his own handwriting.

This November marks the centennial of Nikolais’ birth, and the international dance community will pause to remember him. Those lucky enough to visit the Nikolais archives, however, might discover for themselves that some legends never really die. If they don’t believe me, they can check in with Nikolais. He’s upstairs waiting.

-By Mary Abowd, a doctoral student in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism

A longer version of this article was published in the fall 2010 edition of Gatherings, a publication of Ohio University Libraries.