NDT = Nikolias Dance Theater
HSP = Henry Street Playhouse
MLDC = Murray Louis Dance Company
Chatterbox 1, The Warm-up,
a summary of an e-mail dance discussion, 45, 2001
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Ruth Grauert, Nikolais and Louis companies, 4895 (from her essay On Performance):
Nik had adopted Hanya Holms floor series, which she had constructed with Joseph Pilates, to warm up all muscle groups. Over time Nik incorporated his aesthetic principles into the doing of these exercises. He asked (no, with Nik it was demanded) that the student present the motion with total awareness of space, time, shape, release, presence, immediacy. It would seem that even the driving motional speed that the final floor warm-ups developed in later years had a performance purpose. At the speeds he dictated the body/mind had to be a unit or it would fly apart in all directions.
Response from Anonymous (not a member of our Dance Loop, HSP, SPACE, NDT 4872?):
What you say about the tempo of the floor series is a rationalization.
From Mimi Gerrard: (Certificate from HSP and NDT member 50s to 60s):
I never agreed with Niks making his warm-ups in the later years so structured and difficult. I think it is hard to warm the body that way. I wish he had kept the warm-ups as warm-ups and put his emphasis on learning his technique with the across the floor exercises and the composition and improvisation classes.
From Carlo Pellegrini: (NDT member 7578)
I had a revelation last month and I felt I had to share this with you. I have been working out again after a summer of gaining about fifteen pounds. I instinctively went back to the warm-up and found it as natural as breathing, but I couldnt get through all of it because I was having a hard time remembering it in sequence. When i stopped thinking about it, my body took over and remembered all the transitions and the dance of it. Then I realized that what Nik had done was take the basics of yoga and put movement and transitions to it. He plumbed the workings of yoga and found connections in time, space, shape and motion. [My note to Carlo: Actually it was the other way around. He had the movement and put the yoga to it.] I have been taking yoga for the past three months and have not yet found it as satisfying as the warm-ups Nik devised for us. And when I compare the warm-ups to aerobics, lifting weights, and all the other cardio workouts out there, they all come up short to the warm-up for full-body utilization.
Lynn Lesniak Needle (NDT 80s, School Director 80s to closing)
I read with interest your recent e-mail regarding THE WARM-UP. As is true with the reconstruction issue, the warm-up has been subject to great interpretation depending on who is teaching the sequence and information. Hanya rarely taught her own warm-up during the 70s and 80s and often had a company member warm up the class to prepare the students for her 11 a.m. arrival. This is how I began teaching at the Lab. Nik asked me to warm up the class every Wednesday for Hanya. It was an honor and a huge responsibility since I knew she would often enter the studio and begin to speak for long periods of time, teaching technique, philosophy, aesthetics, etc. and then request very difficult movement that required the body to perform at a virtuosic level after the muscles got cold. My intention as faculty was to thoroughly warm up the body and remain true to Niks Pilates-based sequence, which had been artfully enhanced by Murray over the years to include a kinetic base and a sense of humor. Murray often added body-part isolations borrowed from jazz to create an awareness of pulse, staccato, and percussive action, tempered by fluid, sustained and controlled movement. The warm-up was inspired during later years when most dancers enhanced their Dance Lab training with private and group yoga practice and work with personal trainers on Pilates equipment. This extracurricular training became essential due to the extreme training required in the field to maintain high technical virtuosity on stage. Nik and Murray always gave each company member a little freedom to include one or two personal additions to the warm-up, but Nik was very clear about his limitations. I agreed with him pedagogically that in order to maintain the integrity of the Nikolais/Louis warm-up it was essential to respect their vocabulary, and Nik realized the youthful rebelliousness in his dancers and their need to infuse their own voice, albeit in moderation. I currently teach a modified variation of THE WARM-UP in all of my master classes when visiting public schools, introducing dance as an art form. It has served me well to introduce students to the potential of the range of motion of the human body. I now realize as Carlo has (after studying IYENGAR YOGA seriously for a year ) that Nik and Murray borrowed principles from Yoga and Pilates and infused them in their warm-up. I truly believe Nik borrowed from Busby Berkley for his costume design as well. We cant underestimate the reality of artists affecting and inspiring other artists. This has happened since the beginning of time. I, too am grateful at how well the warm-up has served my body over time and especially how the PEDAGOGY classes Nik taught clarified with painstaking detail the quality of each gesture, so that when I teach I insist on that level of mastery of each stretch, posture, and strengthening exercise. There was definitely a method to the madness. What is difficult is keeping personal practice of the warm-up inspired and fresh and not a rote activity. Have to go teach!
[And later] Let us not forget the importance of the cats roaming aimlessly (a successful mouse deterrent) and Murray pinching back geraniums to insure blooms throughout the year. Murrays incessant jokes and ability to make us all laugh all of the time was a significant part of the warm-up and developing a sense of humor, which is a necessity for longevity in this profession. Today I am a committed gardener because of the seeds planted in my mind from Murray talking about perennials and annuals during class,talking about South Hampton, and the chores in the garden. He used to tell us about planting bulbs in the fall for spring blossoms, which made us all survive the toughness of the fall semester curriculum, since we were hoping for full bloom in the spring with newly sculpted bodies able to fulfill his and Niks high expectations. The warm-up was so much more than a series of masterfully choreographed exercised. It was a prescribed movement diet that fed our artistic souls, our muscles and skeletal systems, and our intellectual egos. Sometimes it was torture and sometimes it was bliss. It always made you feel and understand your body as your instrument on a very visceral level and I am grateful for that.
Gerald Otte (HSP, NDT 70s80s, Company Ballet Master)
I hesitate to enter the discussion on warming the body for two reasons. The first is the personal nature of a warm-up. The second is the direct instructions Nik gave me for warming up the dancers for performance for so many years. In the second instance, the warm-up had a dual purpose, to get the body ready to dance but perhaps more importantly, to get the dancers working together in a set way. He specifically asked that the warm-up be the same every day. He said that while he knew each of the dancers had their own needs and desires in the warm-up, they were to do those outside of the group warm-up. He told us that a lot of warming of the body was habit and that most of what we needed or thought we needed was related to how the body felt from habit. He followed that observation by saying he wanted his warm-up to become the dancers habit. If you would like any other observations related, let me know.
Claudia Gitelman (HSP 50s, staff 70s on, emerita Mason Gross)
In the late seventies my friend Alice Tierstein registered for a Christmas course and stuck with the whole curriculum all week. She and I are about the same age forty-something at that time. Alice found the warm-up punishing and she asked me, Why does Nik warm you up that way? I replied, Because it produces the kind of dancers he wants.
I think you have summarized this discussion on the warm-up well: . . . because it produces the kind of dancers he wants. Nik wanted what he wanted and he worked hard to get it. The warm-up was not right for everybody; for me it was a running of the gauntlet every day I did it (if I can just get through this without any pain . . .).
I was not a fan of the warm-up at the time; Gerald can tell you that. It hurt because I could not figure out at what points I could release my body and spirit enough to get any true benefit out of it. I suspect how one moved through the warm-up reflected the state one was in at the time. It looked so effortless for everyone else in the company (except, of course, Suzy). I did understand intellectually the operating principles of the warm-up but just could not get to the fulfillment stage. I also began to realize toward the end of my tenure in the company that the warm-up was more than a body warm-up, that it was a state-of-mind warm-up and, as Gerald expressed, it was the chance for the company to come together as one force. One of the problems, though, was that we were a bunch of high-strung artists. We were hired for our individualism and bringing us together as a group was fraught with personnel management issues that would give an HR person today a bad case of the shingles.
I remember NIk used to say to our company (7578) that if you marked the steps in rehearsal, you would retain that marking feeling during the show. I also remember him saying, If you cant dance the group stuff, youll never get to dance the solos. I also remember this comment: You are never so wrong as when you are so right. I am sure other folks on this list remember some things Nik used to say. Any other quotes out there?
Gladys Bailin Stern (HSP, NDT 50s1960, emerita Ohio University)
The discussion about the warm-ups is interesting. As an old timer, I thought the warm-up was just that get the body ready to move. What happened to it over the years was unfortunate because it became a speedy series, which, in my opinion, did not function for enough people and was even damaging to some. After the old company was no longer active, Niks attraction was to very flexible bodies where he could expand his vision. Did the codified warm-up accomplish this?
Marc Lawton (Angers Company 7880)
I AM sorry not to have answered earlier. Its REALLY wonderful to be connected to you, to the chat box about Niks repertory and warm-ups (wow, did I suffer in Angers! But Ill answer more in detail since its mixed feelings) and I hope to be up to the task of being the French voice.
Betsy Fisher (MLDC 70s)
We can add this to the list that Carlo started. Heres a quote from Nik that Ive never forgotten: Your main problem is that you dont have a cock. P.S. He also said a lot of intelligent things. This quote, however, sticks out. No pun intended.
Dudley Brooks, NDT 7880
I personally consider Nik, without exaggeration, to be the greatest genius in the history of dance, and one of the great artists of all time. And not just because he realized the gesamtkunstwerk, but because there is no other choreographer whose *entire* repertoire I like such a huge percentage of. I also consider him to be the only great choreographer who was also a great theorist, and vice versa (with the possible exception of Doris Humphrey, but since her works are not familiar to me, I cant say). Performing in his work was an artistic thrill, and what I learned from him about dance and choreography I still use, teach, and proselytize.
One of the things I like about Niks theory of dance is that its a one size fits all theory it applies to *all* styles of dance. In fact, Nik seems to have been the only choreographer and developer of an eponymous technique who understood the difference between a technique (or theory) and a style. I remember him saying explicitly that if you wanted to dance in his company you had to dance a certain way, but that if you wanted to dance in any other company, you could still profit greatly from what he taught.
Therefore I am sorry to enter into this discussion at the point where what is being discussed is the one aspect of Nikolais Technique in which I think Niks otherwise brilliant analytical ability totally failed him the warmup. (And I see that I have lots of company.)
The failure of the warmup is that its *not* a one size fits all warmup I think it fits one particular type of physiology/metabolism very well, and if you dont have that type of body, it doesnt work for you. And of course this contradicts Niks own dictum that every *body* can dance. (But I dont think its humanly possible to have a warmup that works for everyone.)
Both before and after I was in Niks company I have studied many, many dance techniques, including some non-Western, and have (at least eventually, and usually fairly quickly) found that their warmups worked for me. And I have always been, and at the age of 54 still am, extremely flexible. Niks warmup *never* got me warm, and while I was in Niks company I was so stiff I could hardly dance.
I do agree with what Gerald and Lynn quote Nik as saying, that the same warmup was needed every day so that it would become habit, and that a group warmup was needed to make the ensemble coherent. This would be true in any company and any style. Gerald says: He said that while he knew each of the dancers had their own needs and desires in the warm-up they were to do those outside of the group warm-up. I wish Nik had said it more publicly (or that I had been smart enough to figure it out for myself). I would put it more bluntly: the warmup was very good if you were already warmed up. Maybe the problem is that it should have been called something other than warmup.
By the way, has anyone ever remarked how different Niks Pilates-derived warmup is from the Pilates exercises taught in Pilates classes? I cant see the similarity at all.
You, Ruth, say: He asked (no, with Nik it was demanded) . . . Sometimes that was the problem!
At the speeds he dictated the body/mind had to be a unit or it would fly apart in all directions. His philosophy must have been what doesnt kill you makes you stronger.
I agree 100% with Mimi: I think it is hard to warm the body that way. I wish he had kept the warm-ups as warm-ups and put his emphasis on learning his technique with the across the floor exercises and the composition and improvisation classes.
And with Gladys: . . . did not function for enough people and was even damaging to some.
Lynn says: The warm-up was inspired during later years when most dancers enhanced their Dance Lab training with private and group yoga practice and work with personal trainers on pilates equipment. This extracurricular training became essential due to the extreme training required in the field to maintain high technical virtuosity on stage.
Interesting. Several dancers were also, probably without Niks approval, and possibly without his knowledge, taking ballet and/or jazz classes. I wasnt one of them I was quite anxious to *unlearn* ballet. (After I left the company, after years of Nik telling me my dancing was too physical, it was quite funny to have another teacher tell me to be more physical.)
Carlo says: One of the problems, though, was that we were a bunch of high-strung artists. We were hired for our individualism, and bringing us together as a group was fraught with personnel management issues that would give an HR person today a bad case of the shingles.
Nik always hired dancers with the most personality the same personality he was always saying he didnt want to see on stage. But then Niks definition of words was never the same as the definitions you would find in a dictionary. I think Nik was like Humpty Dumpty: When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.
One of the things I most respect about Nik was that, almost alone among modern choreographers whose companies have reached a certain degree of success, he adamantly insisted on having a variety of body types (and therefore dance types). And yet so much of his choreography was unison! Rehearsals must be so much easier (but the artistic result so much less interesting) in the cookie cutter companies.
Carlo quotes: I also remember this comment: You are never so wrong as when you are so right. Wasnt it Youre never so wrong as when youre right all alone? A *very* good motto while you are onstage in *any* company! (A very bad one offstage, though. But Im sure Nik only meant it for onstage.) We got a lot of mileage out of it on tour: In Indonesia, Youre never sarong . . . etc.
Some of my personal experiences with Nik were, Im sorry to say, just as bad as the one that Betsy mentions, but without such pithy quoteth. Also (unlike with Betsys example), they were probably as much a product of my neuroses as of Niks. So I would rather share two stories which illustrate the *fun* side of Nik his childlike and irreverent sense of humor.
When I first studied at the school, I said to him, Nik, when you have some free time, Id like to talk to you about the possibility of dancing in your company. My artistic idol, a world-famous and distinguished-looking elderly white-haired gentleman, replied, Free time??? Bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-blppp! (The noise you make wiggling your finger against your lips.)
And several people will remember this one: The evening when, as he went out the door after a long day of rehearsing, he pantomimed mooning us and said, Well, enough of this art shit! Exactly the sort of unpretentious attitude about art that a *real* artist should have!
Carter McAdams NDT 7882
I also found the warmup very difficult. A friend of mine who was in Pilobolus for many years told me a story to which I could relate: After being in Pilobolus for a month, he felt so battered that one morning as he was approaching the barn where they rehearsed, he just decided to roll/tumble down the hill; he figured, what the hell, if I survive it, I'll probably be ready to dance.
One of the high points of performing parts of the warmup during lec-dems came for me in Jakarta, I think. We were doing a lec-dem on a stone floor at a dancing school, and when Nik got to the roll-over-and-touch-forward-and-reach part, he just kept drumming at a very high tempo as he spoke and forgot us. We dutifully did over a hundred of those rolls with that wide-eyed performance face before he moved on. Come on and correct me if I don't remember this properly Marcia, Lynn, Chip, Gerald, Steve, Marla, Dale, Robbie, and Joanie (on loan from MLDT to replace South-American-caught-hepatitis Jessie, I think).
Quote from Nik, painted high on the SR backstage wall by the stagehands in Tempe(?), from one of his earlier visits: The Nutcracker is a disease.
Quote from Nik, summing up a rather long point in a lec-dem: Everything . . . has a thing.
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