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The Returns of Alwin Nikolais

Bodies, Boundaries and the Dance Canon

Edited by Claudia Gitleman and Randy Martin

Wesleyan University Press
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A Review

This is a handsome book with beautiful color photographs of Nikolais’s work by Tom Caravaglia. I couldn’t begin at the beginning (so I’m a kid!); I looked at the pictures first and I’m glad I did, for they evoke Nik, and they get one ready for the onslaught of idea.

Randy Martin (NYU’s Tisch Center) speaks first. After an academic introduction, he launches into a truly poetic description of Vaudeville of the Elements. He takes me back there when all this happened, and I see it again through his eyes—the staging with the backdrop of vertical felt strips, the electrified wands with many-colored lights, costumes of aluminum-covered tubes, hoopskirts, and dancers whose motion speaks directly with all this “stuff.” And finally Act Three, “Tower,” in which the dancers interact with both one another and with aluminum scaffolding to build a house that eventually falls in on them. Randy uses Tower’s dancer-to-dancer interaction and built-up hysteria to let us know that everything said about Nikolais’s “dehumanization” is just not so. He then returns to his opening discussion, placing Nikolais in historical context. He gives me the impression that he knows of what he speaks, that he is not just “mouthing,” so I sat up and paid attention to the whole article.

Claudia Gitelman (Professor Emerita, Rutgers, teacher at the Nikolais school) comes next. She locates Nikolais in his place in the dance aesthetic, discussing the term so often applied to his work, decentralization, and detailing his teaching and use of improvisation. Although Claudia speaks from a time removed, often, when reading her words, I heard Nik’s voice. It is this section of the book that may be of most value to young dancers and their teachers. Much of what is said here can apply to any “technique.” It is the Nikolais dancer’s recognition of space, for example, that gives breath and depth to motion. (We may admire the cleanness of the ballerina’s port de bras, but it will not make us soar unless she acknowledges the “air” that supports it.)

Marcia Siegel (critic and dance analyst) knows whereof she speaks. She spent much time with Nikolais, both in the studio and in conference, and has a “real feel” for his visions and his way of composing. Her first article here on Somniloquy was written at the time of the work’s creation and thus carries an authenticity that much of the more removed articles included here seem to lack. This is not an “after-the-fact” musing (or to be more dignified, research). It is what she saw and what Nik said when she saw it. In both her narrative of the work and her reporting of conversations, she is clear and thought provoking. Her second article on Artisans of Space is factual, from dealing with the Bauhaus and Laban, to Wigman and Holm, to Nikolais. What she writes is clear. Although she does not say that there is a direct path, one to the other, she simply states what is, and implicit in the relating of this history is the idea that one does indeed lead to the other. *

This historic lineage is reworked again and again throughout this volume. There can be no denying that we all stand on those who have preceded us. It matters little whether or not we knew them. The very air of Earth holds idea. (Pyramids co-existed in time in the isolated cultures of Eqypt, Mexico, and South American.)

Yvonne Hardt (research scholar, Free University, Berlin) writes of Dancing across Borders, and starts by describing a stage event that could have been Nikolais but wasn’t. It was a piece by Sasha Waltz. She discusses “decentralization,” using her personal meaning of the word and refers to the fact that dance training remains in the body while a new technique is practiced. One cannot refute this. However, she uses the example of Murray Louis’s solo in Imago (“Artisan”) to illustrate how Graham technique stays with the dancer. I do not believe that Murray ever studied with Graham, and this one presumption on her part gives me pause. But when she speaks of how the motion of the body extends through a stage prop held or manipulated by the performer in certain dances, this one observation makes me prick up my ears. This idea was basic to Nikolais’s primary work with “extensions” (the nerves of the fingers extend through the stick to feel the texture of the sidewalk). I find reading her great fun because of the seesaw of presumption and fact, but I feel that the uninitiated reader may be misled. Her scholarship is irrefutable, but not “biblical.” Knowing that, I enjoyed her essay.

Rebeka Kowal (Assistant Professor, University of Iowa) writes on Being Motion, what she terms “Nikolais’s queer objectivity,” which seems never explained. This is the one thesis that really lost me. My hunger for scholarship is just not sufficiently developed to swallow such fare. I felt as though I were in the midst of gridlock at Broadway and 42nd Street with one idea stalled while another honked its horn. Endlessly. I will leave this to dedicated pundits to review.

Bob Gilmore (musicologist, Darlington College, Devon, England) details the making of Nikolais’s sound scores from his use of traditional piano accompaniment to the sophisticated electronic pieces that Nik produced with others. He pulls no punches and tells it like it is (was). Nikolais was a good musician and could “hear” what he wanted to accompany his dance before any sound was sent into the air. Bob makes this clear. He also refers to the somewhat “shady” use Nikolais made of the work of others. But what he does not say is that these “victims” of Nikolais’s ear willingly allowed themselves to be thusly used. As his dancers contributed their motional ideas, his technical staff constructed and reconstructed his ideas for his properties, and his stage directors helped build his light plots and splice his tapes, so musicians gave of their creative efforts, and Nikolais molded all of these into his theater. By detailing Nikolais’s methods in forming his accompaniment, this article gives a clue as to how he worked with other aspects of his “Theater of Light, Sound and Motion.”

Philip Auslander (Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology) writes of Nikolais’s aesthetic relationship to American modern art. Philip seems to know Nikolais and his work, and it is here that I am most comfortable with what is said. His judgments of Nikolais’s aesthetic relationship to Greenberg (Greenberg in painting, Nikolais in dance) soundly place Nikolais where he would be comfortable. Nikolais worked with “motion” rather than “movement,” and Auslander makes that distinction. He discusses Nikolais’s various solutions he used to divert the spectator from the emotional (literal) presence of the human body, including costume and light and the performing intent of the dancer himself. Auslander tackles with clarity the controversies (dehumanization et al.) and the root of the Nikolais aesthetic. After all, Nikolais was a Connecticut Yankee, and this discussion brings him home.

Mark Franco (Professor, University of California, Santa Cruz) discusses the distinction between the dance work and the dialogue that it engenders. He (I think) believes that the dance cannon works to exclude much good work by promoting the repeated revival of selected works (canonical works). He discusses the “institutionalizing” of dance, of how it is represented in the curriculum of academia, and he follows the development of such. He defines the dance canon as “a social-critical compact that silently and effectively determines whose work can be seen and for how long.” He deals with revival and reconstruction. He sings a complete symphony of dance history, weaving the disparate voices into a tumbling crescendo and collapse, and suggests that deregulation of canon may serve to situate “the heretofore-unrecognized values of Alwin Nikolais’s choreographic output and new ways of historicizing those values.”

The volume then includes what it calls “Documents”—pieces by Nikolais himself, Murray Louis, and a compendium of historic reviews from 1953 through 1993, complied by Naima Prevots and written by Louis Horst, P.W. Manchester, Clive Barnes, Marcia Siegel, Arlene Croce, Alan M. Kriegsman, Deborah Jowitt, Lewis Segal, George Jackson, and Anna Kisseldorf. There is a chronology of Nikolais’s works, compiled by Jana Feinman, and a log of company performances from 1949 through 1989, compiled by Claudia Gitelman. Together, this compendium of critique and information makes this volume a splendid resource of information much needed to round out the history of dance aesthetics in the twentieth century.

* Those who have worked with both Holm and Nikolais see little resemblance in their approach to class training. However, both used improvisation in composing stage work and in performance itself. Nikolais had never worked under Wigman, but when she visited the Henry Street Playhouse and observed the work there, she stated that Nikolais’s approach was the closest to her approach that she had seen.  [Return]

— Ruth E. Grauert, June 4, 2007