The Theater of Alwin Nikolais

By Ruth E. Grauert

Alwin Nikolais’s theater was rooted in his classes for it was there he developed the kind of dancer he wished to present in his ballets. This is not unique. Every dance master does the same. However, Nik’s classes were not based upon a series of set movements (i.e., ballet “steps,” rise and fall, contraction and release, etc.) but on a theory of motion.

     Although the content of Nik’s classes naturally evolved over decades, his classes continued to focus on the principles of motion that he needed to produce his ballets. He needed decentralized dancers, those whose focus could be not on their personal values but on the motion itself. He needed those same dancers to enter a moving world built upon the principles of time, space, shape, and motion.

     These principles are universally acknowledged beyond technique and style. We soar with the ballet dancer whose leaps lift us. We fade with the danseuse whose port de bras vibrates with death. We become the blind grandmother who spins. We rock in the arms of the ancestress. We fly with the kid next door who gets on a bike and flies to the moon. These memorable images are given us by creators who lent themselves to the time/shape/space/motion of what they intend to portray.

     All of these moments that we behold and cherish are actions of performers devoted to the presentation of flying or dying, of doing, or dreaming. They have lent themselves to the time/shape/space/motion of the act.

     It is not the perfect turnout; rather it is where the knees point. It is not the perfect port de bras but the space the arms enclose. That we fill the far reaches with sunlight, or the inner space with darkness is human and will speak human to human. And this is dance.
—Ruth E. Grauert, 2009

IT IS BOTH exasperating and wonderful that Alwin Nikolais believes that what he imagines is perfectly possible. It is exasperating because it drives everyone, most of all him, to the utmost output of sensitivity, know-how, and effort. It is wonderful because his belief is substantiated again and again. What Nikolais imagines is possible—eventually.

      Nikolais’s imagination deals with time as a continuum—time that is duration rather than meter, time that is measured by length rather than by the number of beats.

Gallery 1978

      The time element of “Dignitaries” in Imago (1963) concerns itself with the holding of space until the time-space tension melts or breaks into motion. The eight dancers who were the Nikolais Company when Imago was choreographed had to learn to “see” one another with the backs of their necks in order to perform what Nikolais imagined, for not only does “Dignitaries” treat time durationally, it also is exquisitely exacting in its motional and spatial design.

      “Dignitaries” is not a singular event. In 1942, Nikolais’s Metamorphosis had never had a rehearsal with accompaniment. At its premiere performance at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, it was programmed to go on following an intermission-which lasted much too long while the composer doggedly persisted to complete the score. Nik had literally to snatch the score from him so that “the show could go on.” Needless to say, the dancers had to depend upon their common sensing of time-space to give a semblance of Nikolais’s intentions. Perhaps such experiences are in the genesis of every artist’s concerns, for herein was (unintentionally) time being handled somewhat durationally, and so, perhaps, provoking an insight into the nature of time in motion.

      And, incidentally, the problems of working with an outside composer, or with music already composed, were responsible for Nikolais’s composing his own scores from 1957 onward, with the exception of a collaboration with James Seawright for Imago (1963), parts of Styx (1976) for which several musicians from Wesleyan University improvised on their gamelan, and Arporisms (1977) to which the Paul Winter Consort contributed.

      In Vortex (1952) the primary concern was the transfer of motional values from dancer to dancer. “Woe unto him” who developed a time block, for Vortex had a cast of “thousands” and became a virtual maelstrom that devoured him who hesitated, who did not propel the motion in time. The motional premise made it mandatory that time be not metered nor cued by any agency except the time-space-energy of the propelling motion.

      Unlike Vortex, which was semi-improvisational in nature, Noumenon Mobiles (1953) presented several dancers moving identically through a defined score of shaped time/space. The premier performances of Noumenon were accompanied by a monotony of large bass drum beats—no break into measures, no cue as to “how many.” The dancers, encased in opaque jersey envelops, had, of necessity, to depend upon the sensation of duration to perform the evolution of forms in unison. In performance “Dignitaries” is danced to a wonderful score of knocks and hums wherein the performer can find cues that tell him where he should be and what he should be doing. Noumenon now has a phrased score, which slides with the dancers from one moving shape to the other. Because of the existence of these scores, dancers who perform in revivals of these works and who were not members of the company during the period in which they were choreographed have not experienced a total dependence upon time sensing. There is not enough time during the rehearsal of revivals to perfect a dance, minus the sound score, prior to exposing the dancers to it. They have got to learn it (move it and hear it) all at the same time. Inevitably, this changes the concept of the dance for the performer and thus for the sentient spectator.

Kaleidoscope 1956

      However, every dancer who has worked for Nikolais during the composition of any of his ballets has, of necessity, become increasingly sensitive to his use of time. Since Nikolais usually composes his scores after his dances are choreographed, the dancers, during the period of choreography, have no sound accompaniment and must come to know the true measure of time, the weight and thread of ten seconds, twelve seconds, forty seconds, or eight minutes, although no metered value is placed thereon. The evolving motion develops its time bound­aries through the dancers’ sensings of the passage of time.

      When the schema of motion is secure, cues are deter­mined for the beginning of each new phase of motion. Then the ballet is timed, cue-to-cue, with a stopwatch. This timed schedule then becomes the basis for the com­position of the sound score. During the preparation of Scenario (Feb. 1971), in which the portraits of emotions contain virtually no meterable motional material, the ballet was clocked several times with little or no variation evident in the length of the phrases, attesting to both the time sensing skill of the dancers and the persistence of Nikolais.

      Such a way of working with time is a grueling discipline for the dancer and the choreographer alike. Although every dancer can approach the control of duration, not everyone can master it. For those who do, performing must be an unequaled freedom; it seems so to the sentient spectator. The dancer, who works with time in the muscle of the motion, rather than with counts in the head, gives a performance that is in all ways memorable.


      Nikolais’s imagination can make a stage of any nook or cranny, plane or place on this planet. In the summer of 1940 he toured America with three other dancers and performed in grange halls, barns, town halls and movie theaters, adapting the facilities with which those dancers were presented to the point of using fire escapes for dressing rooms.

      During the winters of 1948 through 1956 he and his young company, then based on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the Playhouse of the Henry Street Settlement, toured the Metropolitan area, playing such varying places as the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, the lecture hall in the Museum of Natural History in New York, and many, many grade schools. The early touring ballets of this period were Nikolais’s ballets for children, and they are classics in the genre. To these he gave his knowledge, artistry and effort. Although his energies have been occupied since 1956 with the development of his special brand of dance theater, he has not relinquished his persistence to give the very best possible performance in each location in which his ballets play.

Tent 1968

      The Nikolais Dance Theater has played on equally diverse stages. They have performed in the Roman ruins at Baalbek where the company crew was recruited to erect special guy lines to keep Nik's Tent from blowing away. In the Herod Atticus Amphitheatre in Athens, Noumenon was played on three levels: on an ancient stone at stage level and on two different levels of the walls of the ancient ruin, the highest being thirty feet above the stage floor. (Bear in mind that the dancers’ faces in Noumenon are covered with heavy cloth; they can see nothing! So indeed this staging was daring for Nikolais and performers alike.) On the island of Maui, the high school stage, built by the WPA, had been attacked by termites. Nik's crew improvised additional supports to hold up the stage drapery. In a cattle-showing arena in Davis, California, half the stage lighting had to be set up in the audience. In a high school in Keene, New Hampshire, the electricity to power the stage lighting had to be brought into the auditorium from the cafeteria. No lights could be used until the dishwashers were finished for the day.

      All touring companies meet these problems and in their own ways must solve them. (For example, I know that Merce Cunningham had to requisition automobile headlights for a chapel performance in Chicago. But Nik’s eye demands something more than mechanical improvisation and refitting. His ballets may be repositioned upstage or down: his dancers are restaged to take advantage of whatever aesthetic opportunity the location may offer. In addition, in any theater he may alter the traditional house lighting as well as the stage lighting. By taking such liberties with what is available, he makes his aesthetic intent visible to the spectators from the moment they step into the foyer.

Light — Traditional Stage Instruments

      Nikolais’s belief that what he imagines is possible is so often substantiated because his visions are aesthetic; that is, based on the data supplied him by way of his senses. Upon this sensing he constructs or changes. When he first mounted a dance at the Henry Street Playhouse, he used his inherited McCandless lighting system with defined warm and cool areas, two-color cyclorama, footlight strips and a balcony rail. The options these gave him were insufficient for his vision of sculptural (three-dimensional) values of body and motion.

      The technical director, Richard Brown, who had been at the Playhouse since the early thirties, had a way of digging through discarded equipment and coming up with additional possibilities, which answered problem after problem that Nikolais posed: booms, shinbusters, lobsterscopes, Linnebachs, gobo-slots for modeling both dancer and stage. Nikolais, in working with these, developed a focus that did not light the floor but rather a focus that modeled the floor.


      Every theater production has a light plot that places the lighting instruments, and a lighting cue sheet that details the lighting changes, since the quality, timing and changing of light affects the aesthetic statement of what is seen. Light, as an aesthetic spokesman, seemed so strong to Nikolais that it became necessary for him to design his lighting as he choreographed. He has been doing just this since he created Prism in 1956. In the first dance of Prism, confined pools of light came on and off with or against the motion of the dancers. The plaster cyclorama of the Playhouse featured prominently in the finale as the dancers ran up that cyc for up to ten feet (or so it seemed), turned with their bodies parallel to the floor, and ran pell-mell for the audience. Just as they were about to run over the footlights, the auditorium was flooded with a battery of blinding spotlights placed at the edge of the stage. In this instance the illusion of the motion of the dancers running over the footlights and leaping into the auditorium depended upon the placement and timing of the lighting instruments involved. However, in “Glymistry,” another of the dances in Prism, the lighting is not only placed and timed, it is also shaped, for the aesthetics of the dance depend upon a slot of glaring light, which not only isolates the moving parts placed therein but also leaves a trail of persistent motion in the eye of the beholder when the speed of motion and the contrast between light and dark are controlled to do so. Without designed and conditioned lighting, the dances of Prism could not have been choreographed and cannot be performed.

      Since Prism, Nikolais consistently has used non-traditional stage lighting in one innovative design after another. Each ballet presents it own unique design requirements. In Totem (1960) silhouettes move against a designed cyclorama, and internally lighted columns, which change color for each dance in the ballet, form the on-stage edge of each wing. In Imago three spotlights placed in the footlight trough throw panels of color on the cyclorama and are used differently in three dances of the ballet (for shadow effects, for moving color designs, and for a strobe-like effect produced by the motion of the dancers).


      The particular lighting demands of Imago initiated the necessity for the Nikolais Dance Theater to carry its own instruments. Not long after its premier performances at the Henry Street Playhouse, Imago was presented at the State Theater in Lincoln Center in New York City, and at the then new and most complete facility, three instruments could not be found to provide the panels of color on which the ballet depended. Lincoln Center had to borrow them from the Henry Street Playhouse.

      Today, Nik’s company carries eight three-foot stacks of four instruments each, giving the company a stack for each wing space. In addition, it carries two stacks of three spotlights for the apron and several pairs of “rovers.” All of these are wide-angle instruments designed to play as “shinbusters.” The burden of carrying such a quantity of baggage would not have been assumed by Nikolais, who is a practical man, unless he felt it to be essential for his aesthetic conceptions. (I have not enumerated any equipment except standard stage lighting instruments, nor have I listed the quantity of cable needed, nor the necessary dimmer controls.) These light stacks give him the ability to model the stage floor, the bodies of the dancers, and the density of the stage environment.

Certain “Effects”

      Because Nikolais is a theater man, the devices of theater are his. He utilizes any theatrical standby of vaudeville, revue, burlesque, or nightclub that sparks in him a vision. His art is not precious or exclusive. He uses what will serve it.

      He used flash pots in his children’s classic St. George and the Dragon (1953) and again to make the final, inevitable statement in “Tower” (Act III of Vaudeville of the Elements, 1965).

Galaxy 1965

      In 1965 in Galaxy, and again in Vaudeville that same year, Nikolais made extensive use of blacklight. The special capacities of these wavelengths enabled him to obtain a motional statement, giving him moving elements without revealing the mechanics of the motion. Designs are moved in these dances without the visible presence of the dancers.

      Not only does blacklight reveal items designed with particular pigments, it also makes visible other items, such as garments washed in certain detergents. During rehearsal for Galaxy a carefully designed interchange of pallets and masks became, with the flick of the blacklight switch, a ballet for panties and supporters. In order to solve that problem, a chemical engineer from one of the leading soap manufacturers had to be nursed into confessing to the fluorescent properties of one of his whiteners. That rid the ballet of that annoyance, but Nik would not rest until he knew the name of the responsible chemical and where he could procure some so that sets of leotards could be dipped the chemical.

      Blacklight also fluoresces the whites of the human eye and makes small mirrors of contact lenses. After half the members of the Nikolais Company, who were working in blacklight four to six hours daily during the process of choreography, were convinced that they were slowly being blinded, a gentleman with a suitcase full of meters from the New York City Industrial Accident Commission took readings all over the black-lighted stage. His official findings were posted in and official paper: there is no harmful radiation from blacklight. In Gallery, premiered in April 1978 at the Beacon Theater in New York City, Nikolais again used blacklight, bringing to the spectator every facet of blacklight’s theatrical possibilities.

Moving Lights

      In early ballets such as Prism (1956), Nikolais used the motion of dancer-held, battery-powered lights that illuminated designed shapes to bridge individual dances within ballets. With Galaxy the motion of isolated lights and use of blacklight luminescence became an instrument for Nikolais’s art. Then in Vaudeville, which followed closely the premiere of Galaxy, he designed two separate dances using dancer-controlled primary source lights.

      “Buckets” (one of the Galaxy dances) makes use of internally lighted costumes of wide, reflective tubes worn on the arms and legs of five male dancers. It is a flow of bold images that no other device could approximate. The actual lighting mechanics were redesigned several times, for the images never satisfied Nikolais’s optimum expectations for the aesthetics of the dance. With the advances made in lighting electronics since 1965, it is time for Nik to try it again.

      “Wands” (the second of the Galaxy dances) is a dance of fireflies constructed of hand-held dowels topped with colored reflectors and lamps, each equipped with its own battery and on-off switch. It was delicate, charming, and perfectly possible when performed on a thrust stage in an auditorium the size of the Guthrie Theater at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, by whom Vaudeville was commissioned, and for which it was designed. It was “Wands” that was in rehearsal on the stage of the Henry Street Playhouse at the onset of the 1965 blackout in Manhattan. The company was unaware of the problems until the work lights would not switch on. And it was the wands that lighted the dancers out of the theater and to their homes.

      Somniloquy was commissioned by the Contemporary Music Society to be premiered at the Guggenheim Museum in the recital hall whose stage was a small trapezoid, absolutely white, including a low ceiling and three walls, and devoid of lighting instruments. Nikolais’s first practical solution: dancers would carry their own lights and illuminate themselves. And the genesis of this solution, as such almost inevitably is, is that the solution became the aesthetic keystone of the ballet.

Galaxy 1965

      The development of the Somniloquy lanterns is a saga of Nik’s persistence in developing technical details that satisfy his aesthetic image. The lanterns had to be completely portable. Therefore, they had to be battery powered (no entangling wires). And they had to be powerful. A six-volt battery was selected. They had to last the length of the ballet. Nik designed for them a sort of Linnebach lens made of plastic hemispheres. The only six-volt lamp that did not distort his designs was an obsolete automotive lamp. So that auto lamp was it, with the appropriate socket and tailor-made holder and an on-off switch to complete the unit. These units weathered the first few choreographic sessions, but Nikolais was dissatisfied with the sudden on and off of illumination that the on-off switch produced. He needed at six-volt dimmer installed in each unit. Sound electronics provided an Ohmite variable resister that did that job.

      These lanterns satisfied the aesthetic image for the performances on the white stage at the Guggenheim. They were adequate to the job at the 350-seat house at the Henry Street Playhouse. But their impact proved inadequate when they were used in a larger facility. So, the six-volt archaic lamp with its Linnebach globe was replaced by a reflective motorcycle lamp, and Nikolais’s color designs were “baked” on it in the technical director’s oven.

      The technology of camping, the auto industry, sound electronics, and cooking all contributed to the manufacture of this one necessary property in this one ballet to fulfill Nikolais’s practical solution. The lanterns illuminate the dancers themselves and create motion on the cyclorama and a scrim. They have a quality of somnambulance, which the title suggests.

      In Triad, Nikolais uses a background of floating lights produced by dancer-operated, double-ended flashlights manufactured by his technical crew to specifications of his imagination. And once more what he sees in his mind is made possible.


      It is difficult to recall when the first tape recorder was used by the Nikolais Company. It seems to have always been there until one tries to recall. For one performance of the ballet for children, Legend of the Winds (1954) Phyllis Lamhut and Murray Louis literally had to sing their Chavez accompaniment because the proper record was not available. In Village of Whispers (1955) only half the cast appeared on stage at one time. The other half was offstage providing the accompaniment, a marvelous montage of words, vocalizations, concrète sounds, and percussion. Each ballet from 1947 to 1963 employed a different accompaniment solution to provide a satisfactory aural medium.

      The ear plays a major role in the aesthetics of the Nikolais Dance Theater. Nikolais is a skilled pianist (his first professional job upon graduating from high school was that of accompanist in one of the last silent film theaters), and his early concert dances used piano accompaniment. For his ballets for children, Freda Miller, who composed some of the scores, and Nik himself, played the accompaniment from pianos in the pit. Al Brooks composed the music for Nik’s Extrados (1949), his first full-length ballet composed at the Henry Street Playhouse. Occasionally, Nik would use music already composed, as for some of the dances in Kaleidoscope (1956). However, necessary restructuring of the music and copyright issues presented obvious difficulties. Nikolais, who is also a skilled percussionist, found himself filling aesthetic “holes” with percussive sounds, with voiced sounds, and with improvised instruments of every conceivable kind.

      Kaleidoscope was performed to taped accompaniment, some of which was made by the Playhouse Percussion Group (in reality the Nikolais Dance Company). With the advent of taped sounds, Nikolais found that he could pursue all his former techniques, could correct, could select and could make the aural aesthetic of his dance theater very close to what he felt it should be. At that time, the dancers themselves would help record the accompaniment. Under Nikolais’s direction they would play drums, rattle beans in a can, blow through cardboard tubes, play toy trumpets, vocalize, strike gongs, stamp, or clap. Then Nikolais would spend hours editing and altering the recording. Many of the scores thus made are memorable pieces of music, and in 1960 Nikolais produced a record of selected pieces on the Hanover label.


      During the composition of the sound score for Imago, Nikolais was able to work at the Columbia-Princeton Sound Lab with James Seawright. It was backstage after an Imago performance that Robert Moog introduced himself to Nikolais, and Nik procured one of Moog’s first synthesizers.

      Nikolais’s approach to sound technology is that of an artist, not that of a scientist. He is able to operate freely, independent of other human agencies to produce what he senses. The facts of technology are his tools. But he uses these facts as he uses any other element of his theater art. He makes random connections, turns dials, listens to the results, and cares not a whit what diode produced it. The criteria for the placement of the sounds (in the score) and for the very sound itself are aesthetic ones. Sound, with motion, with color, and with decor produces the total cadence, which is Nikolais’s statement.

      The schedule under which Nikolais composes makes it imperative that he delegate as much of the noncreative work as possible to others. During the composition of Structures (1970) the sound technician was dumbfounded when Nikolais presented him with a corrugated carton full of lengths of tape and said, “Here’s the sound score.” Of course, each length was numbered with the corresponding motion cue number. Nik had done his job. He had created, listened, timed, and recorded. He had plotted sound with motion, sound against motion, and color to sound to bring about his image. Now the sound technician was to do his job. He spliced the pieces together.

Head To Foot


      Nikolais’s dance technique is a barefoot one, a tradition handed down from the days of Isadora Duncan, who, we are told, took off her shoes in empathy for the ancient Greeks. However, Nikolais does not use bare feet out of homage. To him the bare foot is practical. Its muscular and tactile functions are essential to the performance of the total body. Nor does he utilize the bare foot and then ignore it. Apparent mutilation of the body design by the termination of the costume may disturb the image and when it does, he uses whatever device will serve his aesthetic. Many such devices are primary to the concept. In “Discs,” the opening dance in Kaleidoscope, the dancers wear large colored aluminum discs on one foot, which serve in various aesthetic capacities. Originally intended simply to extend the dancer’s range of balance by providing a larger than normal base, they also add a vertical extension as a great “toe shoe” might; they increase motional dynamics with their added weight in swinging. The shape, color, and material were aesthetic decisions, producing moving visual elements in themselves, and the heavy aluminum gives a satisfying, large, loud clang when the dancers stomp the floor. In a section of Stratus and Nimbus (1961) and again in Scenario the dancers wear small sound-producing fiberboard circles on each foot. The use, the material, and the size of these “tappers” were aural decisions. The specific sound was the initial criteria. Although they are not seen, they do alter kinetic values by the manner in which the dancers must move to produce the desired sound.

      The stopping of the design below the knee, at the calf, or at the ankle, which the end of tights produces, is an annoyance to the eye as it follows the line of leg in shape or motion. We often accept such a break as a convention and ignore the annoyance. Nikolais cannot accept this kind of “sensory blocking” and has used every conceivable device to circumvent it, including makeup. Dancers have danced with elastic around their toes to hold the legs of the tights over the foot. One could say that barelegged designs pleased the performers more than anyone else.

      On the other end is the head. The long flowing locks of the women, traditional to modern dance in the forties, disturbed Nikolais’s aesthetic. To him they remained an aesthetic constant, a motional uni-statement, gorgeously feminine, and unless the dance was oriented toward allure, something had to be done. And done it was — with buns and hats, wigs and headbands, for male and female alike, as dictated by the concept and the costume design, as in Tensile Involvement (1953), for example.

Bewitched 1957       Many of these hats were made of a plastic-impregnated cloth, which had to be soaked in a smelly catalyst and then shaped. Dancers had to sit with their hair and skin protected by aluminum foil while that smelly, cold fabric was shaped to their heads. More comfortable material, or more easily shaped material, such as felt or buckram, proved unsuitable for exotic shaping or for packing for touring, and wig forms produced headgear that either fell off or produced headaches. So dancers subjected themselves to the lesser evil—sitting still.

      Below the hair is the sometimes-undesirable design of a uni-colored globe—the face. Since we are culturally face-oriented and habitually seek contact with the inner man by way of face nuance, the face design assumes communicative importance beyond its proportionate volume. It therefore becomes a considerable aesthetic element, bearing weight kinetically, visually, and emotionally.

      In the 1950s a black face in a cast caused a sensory blocking. The theatergoer saw race, and all the social implication that race bore at that time. Whether positive or negative vibrations ensued in the spectator’s senses made little difference to Nikolais. The spectator whose senses were preoccupied with racial differences was not perceiving Nik’s images. Hence, his early treatment of the face was concerned not only with varying its uni-statement but also with preventing audiences from experiencing this sensory blocking. He used makeup: purple, red, green, yellow, half a face one color—half another as in Kaleidoscope; or strips of color following the costume design as in Prism; or he used whiteface as in Imago. This use of makeup does not create character, but rather design and is a part of the total concept of the dances in which it occurs.

Gallery 1978

      Nikolais’s work with masks dates back to his early days with the WPA Theater, where he created puppet characters. In his ballets for children, many of the characters wore masks. Inevitably, the image of faces changed by masks entered into his creation of adult ballets. These were not necessarily full-face masks. In a section of Bewitched (1957) he used goggles made of half ping-pong balls, and in Totem some of the cast wore felt masks with portions cut away. In another section of Bewitched, in a section of Imago, and in Guignol (1977) and Gallery, masks of semi-rigid material make statements both on and off the dancers. Indeed, these masks made an aesthetic statement in themselves. However, the masks made of white Helenca in Galaxy and Nik’s other blacklight ballets are exclusively choreographic elements. Their appearance and disappearance, their motion, and their positions against other moving properties are a part of the ballet.

      Masks present problems for dancers who must see and breathe. Each mask needs be tailored on the dancer (noses and eyes are never in identical places). Each dance must be rehearsed with the masks in the theatrical lighting in which it will be performed, for many a mask has become an opaque screen under stage light. Masks that are a part of the choreography must be worn during the creation of the ballet. Much of this is exasperating to dancers, but they do it, many of them for a decade or more. They know the necessity of what they do, and perhaps as much as anyone else, they have an aesthetic appreciation for what Nikolais creates.

© 1978 Ruth E. Grauert