Tapping into the Eternal: My Journey with Alwin Nikolais

by Mimi Garrard, January 10, 2005

     I met Nikolais when I was a junior in college during a summer course at Connecticut College in 1956. The experience changed the course of my life. The course was suggested to me by Emma Lou Thomas who taught dance in the physical education department of Sweet Briar College. She was a former member of the Mary Wigman Company. My experience with dance had been a weekly 45-minute dance class in the physical education department and previously tap, ballet and modern as a child growing up in Greenwood, Mississippi.

     During the course with Nikolais, I was able to integrate my mind, body, and spirit in a way that I never imagined was possible. Every day we studied technique, improvisation, and composition. I never thought of myself as a creative person before, but under Nik’s tutelage I discovered a monumental need to create. Every day we turned in our compositions, and I was thrilled that Nikolais generally liked mine and included one in all of the weekly student recitals. Everything was new to me, vital and transforming. I wanted this experience to become a life time experience, but I didn’t think I could be a professional dancer starting at my age.

     After college, I went to New York City to study occupational therapy. I thought if I couldn’t be a dancer I would do some kind of dance therapy. After our classes, each day I would take a dance class at night at various studios. Six months later, after quitting occupational therapy, I went to the Henry Street Playhouse to study with Alwin Nikolais and his colleagues.

     It was 1959, the golden days at the Henry Street Playhouse. Nikolais’ students, colleagues, and company included Murray Louis, Phyllis Lamhut, Beverly Blossom, Gladys Bailin, Coral Martindale, and Bill Frank. To me they were all geniuses. They could move like animals, change like chameleons, and transform and transcend themselves in amazing ways. To me, dance was a matter of life and death. With dance I felt alive, and the certainty of death gave me the courage to create without fear of failure. Nikolais gave us the tools, the courage, and the permission to create. Nikolais’ “theories” were to me realities. Space, shape, time, motion, and energy were the ingredients of dance. They were realities that he taught us to explore, and I have done so every day since my first day at Henry Street. These are my tools in my present work with video also.

     Nikolais believed that art is aristocratic. It bows to nothing. It transcends the ego but uses the ego for its own higher purpose. Dance for him was about motion, not emotion. This philosophy was music to my ears. I wanted nothing more than to tap into the eternal.

     Nikolais always stressed the process of learning. During the Henry Street days, Nikolais was exploring and learning everyday just like we were. It was vitally important to him to create dancers who were intelligent animals, able to transform themselves to fit into his many ideas, and to help him shape the ideas. He had no patience for dancers with ballet in their bodies or any other style that could be identified. He wanted his work to be new, vital, pungent, and powerful.

     At Henry Street , we took class all afternoon, rehearsed his or our own work in the evenings and taught on Saturdays. The Henry Street Playhouse produced my work every year from 1963 to 1968, and Nikolais personally directed and lit the performances. That kind of generosity is unheard of today. Nikolais was willing to learn from his students as well as teach us. In 1968 I created the dance Flux, which was for eight dancers, five movable panels, and lit by a film of abstract images. Nikolais liked the dance very much, and afterwards began to use slides in his work. I don’t know if seeing my work with film led to his work with slides. but it is certainly possible.

     I will always be grateful for what I learned from Nikolais and his colleagues at Henry Street Playhouse. His emphasis on the exploration of space, shape, time, motion, and energy , and the necessity to transcend our egos in order to create valid work were the most important “realities” that Nik instilled in me. I am a lifetime learner, a creator or over 80 works for the stage, and over 300 dances created for video. My career has been a joyful journey of discovery that began with Nikolais.

[Go to the Mimi Garrard Dance Theatre Web site.]