Nikolais and the Bauhaus

By Ruth E. Grauert

THE THEATER OF ALWIN NIKOLAIS arrived on the American dance scene with a performance of his Kaleidoscope in 1956 at the American Dance Festival at New London, Connecticut. It was introduced to the European theater with a performance of Imago in Paris in 1963, eventually reaching around the world, opening the new Wacoal Art Center in Tokyo with the premier of his multi-media ballet Illusive Visions in 1985.

      When recently I reread the signature Bauhaus essays of Schlemmer, Moholy-Nagy and Molnár, I could not avoid the parallel images from the works of Nikolais coming to mind. As I detail those images here, it should be understood that Nikolais was adamant that he was not a Bauhaus product. Of course, he wasn’t. The time/place line was wrong. The Bauhaus had its earliest roots in France with the architect Henry Van de Velde, who brought his esthetic to Germany in 1902, where his building eventually housed the Bauhaus. The esthetic ideals of the Bauhaus embraced and influenced all visual arts, theater design, and performances from ca. 1910 until the mid-thirties when totalitarian dogma led the Bauhaus principals figures to disburse.

      However, history teaches that there is something in man that gravitates toward similar ideas and images—the pyramidal structures of Africa, Central America, and South Asia, the circles of Stonehenge and Papua, the radio conceived contemporaneously in Italy and the USA. Nikolais spent his early years as a young man in Hartford, Connecticut, in the 1930s when this small city was a hotbed of the arts avant-garde, and young Nikolais must have encountered the Bauhaus ideas. While I wish to make it clear that I do not feel that Bauhaus was the conscious source of Nik’s esthetic philosophy, there are undeniable parallels. The Bauhaus stands as a hallmark esthetic in the art of the 20th century just as Nikolais is a hallmark in Dance Theater.

      I paraphrase Nikolais out of deep memory: “Some stimulus coming from somewhere triggers a motional schemata. You just start working and things happen. You don’t know why you do what you do until suddenly you see it.” Of course, Nik knew of the Bauhaus. And who knows how deeply the images of Bauhaus sank into his creative preconscious from whence the “motional schemata” sprang?

      This all sounds so very happenstance, whereas in actuality, as his art matured, Nikolais worked frequently from careful “mock-ups,” although he felt no compunction to adhere to his schemata should it prove intractable as his work proceeded.

      All Bauhaus quotations and reproductions herein refer to The Theater of Bauhaus (the essays of Oskar Schlemmer, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and Farkas Molnár), Walter Gropius and Arthur S. Wensinger (eds.), Arthur. S. Wensinger (translator), Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996 (originally published in Germany in 1925).

p. 21. “Form is manifest in extensions of height, breadth and depth; as line, as plane, and as solid or volume.”

      Beginning in technique classes, Nikolais made his students aware of these aspects of form, which he designated as elements of space. For example, the line was made manifest even in the plié‚ by the vertical reach, by the “riding” of the vertical line in the execution. However, there was never a negation of “other” dimensions. For example, inattention to the front surfaces of the body, which negated depth while the student concentrated on width in second position was immediately spotted and corrected. The student was constantly asked to maintain a state of total awareness of the volume of the moving body.

      In theory class, we who were his students recall the many explorations into one, two, and three dimensions, where our three dimensional bodies tried to evaporate while we delineated a single-dimensional diagonal line, or we squeezed ourselves into two dimensional “slots.” And how we tried to shake off “dead” areas so that we could truly project the volume of three dimensions!

Cages from Sanctum 1964

      Time and again, Nik would bring spatial exploration into his productions. Allegory (1959) used linear structures to make his aesthetic statement. In A Time to Dance (also 1959) in the Ford Foundation Film Series produced by WGBH Boston, he placed each dancer in a four-sided structure of wide elastic, which the dancers could manipulate to make visible his concept of space/volume. He used these same structures again in 1964 in his production Sanctum, demonstrating an esthetic use of what could have remained a dry, scholastic ideal.

p. 25. “The laws of organic man . . . reside in the invisible functions of his inner self: heartbeat, circulation, respiration, the activities of the brain and nervous system. If these be the determining factors, then their center is the human being, whose movements and emanations create an imaginary space.”

      Nik insisted that his dancers “project,” i.e., that they send the shape of motion beyond themselves. If the motion was directed inward, it was to be intentionally so, and not a happenstance. Even that internal stuff must resound to the universe. Is this creating imaginary space? Again, I am reminded of the universality of idea: “Every body placed in luminous air radiates its likeness throughout the numberless parts of the air; it is wholly and everywhere in all its parts.” (Leonardo DaVinci, ca. 1500, Codex Atlanticus, Ambrosiana Library, Milan; quoted in Leonardo DaVinci, A Philosophical Diary, Wade Baskin, New York Philosophical Library, 1959, p. 38). DaVinci’s statement is a fair definition of Nik’s projection.

p. 25. “. . . These movements are determined organically and emotionally.”

      Organic creation of motion, the organic evolution and progress of the dance, was stressed in every composition class I can recall. I might take exception to “emotionally” unless this word can be further defined. Nik frequently used “emotion” to mean defining conditions, such as slow or fast, near or far, heavy or light. This seems not to be the intent of Bauhaus and may signal to us why Nik wished not to be identified with Bauhaus. If one views dance academically, one can see how initial shapes, positions, and motions lead from one to the other to the end of the dance. I think that scholarly scrutiny of any of Nik’s dances will reveal such organic growth.

p. 25 “. . . Man as Dancer . . . obeys the law of the body as well as the law of space; he follows his sense of himself as well as his sense of embracing space.”

      Nik encouraged the unique individual, and he encouraged that individual to be totally sentient to the forces impinging upon him. I recall an early company concert in which members presented their own choreography. One dancer stood on an eighteen-inch riser in a peaked hat and scratched her ribs; another sat on a ten-inch stool, draped in black, and diddled her feet to a honky-tonk recording; another dressed in evening clothes with bare feet and thumped his diaphragm and belched. Stripped of all artistry, these images sound pretty abysmal. But present these pieces—performed by dancers who project, from their bones out to infinity, the time/space/motion meaning of these actions—then one doesn’t see scratching ribs, diddling feet, or belching, but rather their contribution to the “sense” of these actions.

p.25. “ . . . the metamorphosis of the human figure and its abstraction . . . is made possible by the costume, the disguise. Costume and mask emphasize the body’s identity or they change it; they stress its conformity to organic or mechanical laws or they invalidate this conformity.”

      It is in this metamorphosis of the body that Nik’s relation to the Bauhaus aesthetic becomes signal. Although Nik first transformed his dancers in Lobster Quadrille in 1949 and in ensuing ballets for children, the first serious, non-literal work in which he used the transformation of the dancing figure was “Noumenon” in Masks, Props and Mobiles (1953). From then on, Nik worked to transform the dancing figure with various devices: masks and face paint (used often throughout his work), strange hats in Kaleidoscope (1956), ping-pong ball eye glasses in The Bewitched (1957), full-body encasements that no longer resembled body shapes in Allegory (1959), costumes of felt in Totem (1960) or Celastic in Galaxy (1965), striped gowns and bags of draping cloth that transformed the body’s shape in Imago (1963), and finally as sources of light in Somniloguy (1967).

      Such transformations allowed Nik to pursue motional statements that were impossible without the extra pallet the transformed figures provided. They furthered his intention to create a dance of motion, rather than a dance of psychological drama or of epic story, as was prevalent in the early ’50s. The anonymity of masks and face paint led the viewer to seek meaning in the body’s nuance rather than in facial expression. A completely encased body supplied Nikolais a completely new instrument of planes and volumes with which to choreograph.

p. 28. “Yet there is no costume which can suspend the primary limitation of the human form: the law of gravity . . . . Acrobatics make it possible to partially overcome physical limitations.”

      Nikolais sought to escape the dominance of gravity. He often cited the toe shoes and lifts of ballet as man’s attempt to do just this and claimed that reaching for “heaven” was a Western ideal. In one segment of his first evening-long work, Kaleidoscope (1956), he put a disc on one foot of each dancer, using this broadened base to enable the dancers to lean and move at seemingly impossible angles, and in another segment, dancers supported themselves with long straps affixed offstage—a device that also permitted dancers to defy gravity. He has used dancers suspended on ropes from the fly gallery, and on poles carried by other dancers. It was in the opera, Schema (1980), commissioned by the Paris Opera that he really “took off.” Dancers shared equal time with acrobats to make his motion statement. In L’homme Oisseau (1985), a site-specific work in Aix-en-Provence, he employed many acrobats performing on ropes strung from trees along the avenue.

      In technique and theory classes, gravity was treated as a “companion.” The presentations seemed to say, “Gravity is, so use it, ride it, understand it.” A swing was to be sensed from gravity’s decelerating pull on ascending to maximum height, to its acceleration in the downward path. And in performing curves that were at an angle to the vertical, the centrifugal and centripetal pull on every horizontal and diagonal that Nik could conger—all must be performed while tasting gravity in all its glory. All elevations were to be handled by the dancers with the same sentience toward gravity—riding up, gliding down.

p. 32. “It [theater art] depends as well upon the inner transformation of the spectator—Man as alpha and omega of every creation which, even in its realization, is doomed to remain Utopia so long as it does not find intellectual and spiritual receptivity and response.”

      Nik was a humanist. Always at the center of activity there is the dancer. It is the human being that drives the motion. In Tensile Involvement (1955) the dancers pull the shimmering lines and weave their intricacies. In “Noumenon” (1953) they move the sculpturing cloth. In Tent (1968) they parade the fabric and hang it up (although eventually the deus ex machina takes over—man can’t always have his way). While in Gignol (1977) the complex relationship between man and dummy is the play, man maniacally triumphs. And in Crucible (1985) the emergence of man from the ever-evolving beings is made very plain.

      Certainly Nik suffered much misreading from those who saw with “dead souls.” By that I mean those whose eyes saw, but whose perception stopped at the brain. Art is not arithmetic to be understood by that educated brain. It is to be felt as heat of sun or cold of ice, tasted sour or sweet, moved, pushed, shoved and lifted up beyond stars. It's to swing on Saturn's rings while one sits in one's theater seat; it's noon on a country road; it's midnight in Times Square; it's first love. How Nik would have hated these analogies of mine!

The Triadic Ballet (Stuttgart 1915)
How else can I say art is not in the brain but in the totality of being? Whether one is spectator or creator, one must come to art in innocence. Nik continued to make light and sound, structure and motion serve his theater, despite the fact that many viewers persisted in seeing his work with their brains rather than with their senses. As one reads onward in the description of "The Figural Cabinet," one has that mystery of Gallery explained.

p. 40. “Half shooting gallery, half metaphysicum abstractum. Medley, i.e., variety of sense and nonsense, methodized by Color, Form, Nature and Art; Man and Machine, Acoustics and Mechanics.”

      This is almost Gallery. In the final destruction that Nikolais’s ballet portrays, there has got to be something metaphysical. However the magic of the ballet is that the machines are run by dancers, or are the dancers. The use of black light, which produces many of the illusions, the moving properties, the masks, and the costumes all conform to a Bauhaus ideal.

p. 49. “The theater [is distinguished] through its own synthesis of the elements of presentation: SOUND, COLOR (LIGHT), MOTION, SPACE, FORM (OBJECTS AND PERSONS).”

      In the ’50s, Nik designated his work as “The Theater of Sound, Light and Motion,” which gave license to some superficial critics to say this was not dance. Then Nik changed the designation to “Total Theater.” On page 54 we find these words in a section heading: “THE COMING THEATER; THEATER OF TOTALITY.” The coincidence of labels is perhaps just that because both Moholy-Nagy and Nikolais were describing similar processes.

      Nik’s company was finally designated “The Nikolais Dance Theater.” I am not sure of the exact date that this metamorphosis took place, but I feel that it represents Nik’s security with his multi-discipline esthetic. He no longer needed to point to his use of sound, light, and motion to create theater. He finally felt free to use whatever was at hand to create his images.

p. 50, Footnote 2: “Gestaltung was among the most fundamental terms in the language of the Bauhaus. . . . In its fullest philosophical meaning it expresses the Platonic eidolon . . .”

      Nik frequently used the word “gestalt.” In one of Nik’s manuscripts, he defines Gestalt as “that particular assembly of shape, time, space, and motion which brings about a coherence into an identifiable experience or thing, or area of experience or things.”

      Most of his students can recall, not his exact words because they were too devastating, but the spirit of the words. He’d say, “You’ve lost the Gestalt.” We were, being young, prone to become so engrossed in the prowess of our facility that we abandoned the sense of the matter at hand. We knew the jumps, or rolls, or wiggles we put into our dance were there because we liked to show them and that they had not evolved from our original motional premise and Nik knew it, too.

      Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition defines gestalt: “A structure, configuration, or pattern of physical, biological, or psychological phenomenon so integrated as to constitute a functional unit with properties not derivable by summation of its parts.”

      If the progression of the dance proceeds organically, will it not remain within the parameters of the founding gesture?

p. 57 “. . . man himself in his totality as a formative medium for the stage . . . is to be employed on an equal footing with other formative media . . . with his totality of action, speech and thought.”

      Perhaps I take this passage out of context. No, not perhaps but absolutely, for it brought to mind the many theory classes in which oral sounds, produced by the dancers, provoked or coincided with motional exploration. Early on, an entire ballet—Village of Whispers (1955)—was accompanied by dancer voices. In Scenario (1971) vocal sounds, screams and grunts, hysterical laughter, deep sobbing—for the most part “real” human utterances that the dancers make during performance—are an integral part of the statement. And in the recorded scores that Nik composed, he frequently used vocal sounds, and even words together with tonal sound, as in the overture to Gallery.

p. 58. “. . . from his own initiative submit to the over-all action process.”

      Is this not the “release” of Nik’s vocabulary although I know Nik would balk at the word “submit.” Release is really some kind of Zen thing, a giving of permission by the dancer-mind to his total body to produce the motion that the stimulus calls for.

p. 58 “It is the task of the FUTURE ACTOR [read dancer] to discover and activate that which is COMMON to all men.”

     Nik had the idea that direct, uncluttered motional expression (dance) transcended cultural artifices such as native country, language, formalized gesture—indeed all learned tastes. His overwhelming acceptance in France, where he felt the audiences saw his work “plain,” that is, without preconception, made him anxious to explore this belief. He eagerly accepted the French government’s offer to head a school of modern dance in France. There were many things about the actualization of Le Centre National de Danse Contemporaine d’Angers that did not please him—for one thing, the location. He believed that human population density sparks creativity, that the ebb and flow of images that are inevitable in that population density are necessary to the creation of art. However, the school did provide him with the opportunity to test his “basic human” theories. In the two evening-long works that the stagieres (as the professional students of C.N.D.C. Company were called) produced, Passerelle (1980) and Recto Verso (1981), I saw Nik’s theoretical premises put to good use, but with a definite French accent. I don’t feel that this means that Nik’s universality of art theory is faulted since I could reach out in my “Zen” way and “feel” these dances in my bones. I think it merely confirms that man is not simply a biological organism but also a thing shaped by time and place, and that we do transcend to reach other times and other places. I have no idea if Nik analyzed this as I have, but I offer it for what it is worth.

p. 60. “. . . from the unanalyzable intangibles of creative intuition . . . the Theater of Totality . . . of light, space, plane, form, motion, sound, man . . . must be an organism.”

       This passage brings to the forefront the idea of Total Theater, the term Nik used to designate his company for a time. He was bringing into play all the elements that Moholy-Nagy enumerates. I exhaustively detailed his work in this process in 1978 for Dance Dimensions (Wisconsin Dance Council, Inc., University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Green Bay, WI), so I need not go into that here. But I cite the word organism. Nik did stress in his composition classes and in his own works that from the seed of the first motion the entire dance must grow. The initial gesture must come from a pure release, and then the dance be “permitted” to become.

p. 64. ‘THE MEANS’ and following to p. 67. This section is devoted to the prediction of the use of all kinds of sound producing and recording equipment, much as Nik used time and again, even after he obtained his synthesizer. It foresees the use of all kinds of instruments for transforming and projecting light, from kaleidoscopes to Linnebach, motion picture and slide projectors, to hand-held battery-operated devices. It advocates the use of much “mechanical” apparatus, including mirrors and trapezes. All of these advances in technology, and some transformed “old” stuff, were constant in Nik’s work.
p. 92. “[the human figure] becomes a part of the stage . . . a ’space-bewitched creature’ . . . each gesture or motion is translated [by the viewer] in meaningful terms into a unique sphere of activity.”

      Of course, this statement presumes a sentient audience, unprejudiced, without preconceptions, perhaps untutored. However, the necessity of spatial projection and impact in performance is indicated here. Those of us who have watched reconstructions since Nik’s death have been disconcerted by the performers’ concentration on the muscular act without considering its projection and impact outward to infinity. This is not because the young dancers are unconcerned with performance. For the most part they care about presenting Nik’s works as “authentically” as they can. But they have simply not been schooled in Nik’s theory classes. Their enviable technique does not have the practice of totality and projection, the complete immersion of performer in motion/idea (note the slash) and in releasing the action of such to project to infinity.

p. 95. “The actor [dancer, performer] . . . is altered, transformed, or ‘entranced’ by the addition of some applied object—mask, costume, prop—that his habitual behavior and his physical and psychic structure are either upset or else put into a new and altogether different balance.”

      That masks, costumes, and hand properties were major tools in Nik’s creative life is constantly obvious and can be traced from his use of offertory swags in Extrados (1949) to the light wands in Aurora (1992). His original company had much tutoring in the use of masks, properties, and exotic costumes. In his plays for children, from Fable of the Donkey (1949) through Legend of the Winds (1954), he required his dancers to transform themselves for children (the toughest of audiences) into animals and fishes, winds and Dresden china pieces, merry-go-round horses and exotic humans from Egyptians to Amerindians. Children cannot be enchanted by fake transformations, and Nik’s dancers had to be “for real.” In theory classes, his students explored the transforming energies of all kinds of artifacts—cloth and ropes, tubes and poles, boxes and wigs, any and all of which help performers become other than what they are. Most of his ballets contain some element of transformation, if not with costume, mask, or hand prop, then with the spatial transformation of light.

      However, I note in this passage from Schlemmer the word entranced. It is delineated by quotation marks in the Bauhaus text, which seems to indicate an “out-of-mind” experience, some kind of mesmerizing. Nik would have none of this.

p. 96. “We do not want to imitate sunlight and moonlight, morning, noon, evening, and night with our lighting. Rather we let the light function by itself, for what it is . . . Let us . . . open our eyes and expose our minds to the pure power of color and light.”

      In these words we have both Nik’s progress in turning his back on traditional lighting practices and a clear signal as to a possible reason why he disclaimed the Bauhaus as a forerunner.

      Nik’s avoidance of “boy-girl” involvement, of story telling, of psychodrama, and his pursuit of the dance of time-space-motion led inevitably to his finding traditional theater lighting unsuitable. His art clearly demanded a change in the way his stage was illuminated. The moving three-dimensional figure needed three-dimensional lighting. Light just could no longer come from above alone. He sought to have light strike the figure in motion from every angle, to lift it from the floor, to mold it into a three-dimensional mobile. Changes were gradual. He started with the then-standard nine acting areas, with footlights and border lights for fill, and scoops for lighting the background. (At the Henry Street Playhouse he had a glorious plaster cyclorama for the background.) In one tentative step after another, he added lights to hit the dancing figure from angle after angle until the paths of the light resembled the Bauhaus illustration (right) of “the laws of cubical space.”

      As technology offered further options, Nik explored them and used them. Of course, he used strobe lights and black lights. He mechanized kaleidoscopes mounted on the lens of Lekos (ellipsoidal reflector spotlights). He used “gobos” (patterns projected by Lekos). He used Linnebach projectors. He tried motion picture projections. He used all kinds of flashlights, smoke pots, and flash pots. And finally slide projectors, which were retrofitted for his purposes, as had the flashlights, black lights, strobes, kaleidoscopes, flash pots, and standard stage lighting instruments.

      I sense in the Bauhaus a “remoteness”—a removal of man to be replaced by machine. There is a mathematically clear organization in the Bauhaus, which Nik certainly had somewhere in the depths of his vast persona. However, it was not the organization but rather the production of art that was his goal. I recall when at one rehearsal the sound man asked for the sound tape, Nik handed him a shoebox from which protruded many tails of tape, each marked with a number indicating the order in which the strip was to be heard. He had composed the score, bit by bit. He just hadn’t spliced it together. Of course, he had the sound score, and it was organized. Was it ready for rehearsal? Was this Bauhaus?

An Interesting Afternote:
       In “Chicago’s Photographers and their Abstract World,” New York Times, 05/08/02, Sarah Boxer writes, “Moholy-Nagy (at Chicago Art Institute from 1937 to his death in 1946) was interested in seeing light’s effect on surfaces. The point of photography at the New Bauhaus was to help people see in extraordinary ways—quickly, slowly, closely, abstractly.” Certainly this was how Nik used light.

© 2000 Ruth E. Grauert