The Dance Theatre of Alwin Nikolais

By Ruth E. Grauert

This article is the foreword written for the Nikolais Dance Theatre 1963 Souvenir Booklet.

Alwin Nikolais

Alwin Nikolais in 1963

DURING RECENT YEARS Alwin Nikolais has been developing a new theatre. Concurrent with the concept of music as sound, painting as color, sculpture as shape, and dance as motion is the concept of theatre as dynamics. This is Nikolais’ concept. His work, produced under this concept, is his contribution to man’s exploration of the abstract world.

     Theatre has always been a cooperative of the arts, be the creative agent one man or many. It is the eye of an architect that designs the theatre itself, the stage, the sets; the eye of a painter and sculptor make the properties and costumes; the ear of the musician determines the pitch of voice, the volume of sound, the role of music; the voice of the poet writes the words; the kinetic sense of the dancer shapes the massing of the actors, the speed of the curtain’s rise and fall, the form of dance. However the manner in which Nikolais uses the arts is unique. In his theatre they are not assigned the usual supportive role, wherein they are used to decorate a pre-formed drama. He makes them in themselves the script and the actors. In the very being of color, the growth pof light, the breathing of shape, the shimmer of sound, art moves art, sculpture mounts sculpture and the action of drama unfolds.

     Historically we have our theatre of dance, the Ballet; we have out theatre of music, the Opera. Dynamic considerations in Ballet revolve around a formed concept of motion and in Opera around a formed concept of sound. All structure and meaning (including literal gesture, verbal order, costuming and décor) are shaped to fit these concepts. In the abstract theatre (of Nikolais) all structure and meaning derive from the belief that the shape of energies and of time-space have a meaning in themselves. By molding the abstractions of motion, space, time, shape, color, light and sound Nikolais creates a direct sentient communication.

     Form has meaning in itself, a principle of ancient heritage much used in our modern commercial world. A length of line seen to be short evokes a certain aesthetic action in man. A length of line seen to be long evokes a different action. Similarly a given number of lines of definite diverse lengths will evoke different action with each different positional organization. So it is with planar values, with solids, with temporal aspects, with color, light, sound, motion, each organization having its own aesthetic value, producing a reality of its own.

     Thus Nikolais’ work is not abstract in the sense that he “abstracts” values from actuality to recreate aesthetic image. Rather he uses art substances themselves to generate this new reality. His theatre is based largely on the creation and resolution of tensions among structure of energies and time/space. The stage, a black cube, is carved by light into the arena for drama. It is modeled by sound until the planes of light vibrate with identification. It is tenanted with shapes which are one with the sound and light. This cube of space becomes a new place, wherein exists new adventures for man. Nikolais does this by speaking first to man’s senses—sight, hearing, sympathetic touch and kinesis, his sense of balance, his knowledge of positional changes.

     Such sights and sounds do refer the spectator back to his own experience, for that is how man functions. However, perception must come before reference and not vice versa. In Nikolais’ approach each is allowed his own particular reference to actuality through a statement of a world in terms of space, time, light, color, motion, sound, wherein each finds his own individual existence. The spectator cannot come to this art to seek a statement of his own pre-formed image; he must partake of new images through his own basic nature.