Teaching and the Nikolais Centennial Celebration in Paris

By Joan Woodbury

Finally, after five years of prodding, cajoling and working their fingers to the bone since our Nikolais workshop in Salt Lake City in 2006, Mark Lawton and Dominique Rebaud managed to convince the French Ministry of Culture to fund the presentation of a Nikolais Centennial Celebration in Paris at the Centre National de la Danse in February of 2011. It was not on the grand scale that they had wanted, but it was a wonderful and successful tribute to the life of a man who so influenced the French Dance aesthetic, our champion and mentor, Alwin Nikolais.

Mark and Dominique were able to invite Tito, Murray and me to come to Paris to teach. (If you remember, Dominique, accompanied by her son Felix, danced in the Nikolais Alumni concert at Hunter College, which Ruth produced in December [2010). Of course, I was thrilled to be asked to go. And the really thrilling thing was that Murray agreed to come with Tito

I went two days early to teach a group of dance teachers who teach children in the conservatories around France. They were interested in information about the Nikolais/Louis techniques and philosophy and how it can help encourage the creativity of children and, of course, to unleash and explore their own creativity. So, by request, I taught improvisation focused upon choreographic problems for children. As I always say, “It's not what you do; it's how you do it. Everything that works with adults works for children.” We had a wonderful time together. They were eager, excited and active; they were great movers, and they did some remarkable improvisation together. With Dominique as my interpreter, the classes were noisy and productive and everyone was very pleased.

By the time Tito and Murray arrived two days later, all of our activities were centered in another beautiful building, the Centre National de la Danse, in Pantin. Murray had all sorts of activities arranged for him—press conferences, meetings, involvement in a Nikolais film showing at La Cinematheque la Danse, and an improvisation lecture-demonstration for the public. Murray used 10 dancers who were in the course at CNDC in Angers 30 years ago—and they all still are dancing. With about one hour’s prep, Murray (on the drums) created the lecture demonstration on the spot for an excited public. He was wonderful and so very much “Murray.” Simona Bucci surprised all of us with her presence.

Tito and I were then assigned to the students of the main six-day course, with 12 dancers (five men in the group) for a full day: technique, improvisation, choreography and repertory. But, before we got to work together, had a two-day course with 13 elementary school teachers who were not dance teachers (taught English, science, mathematics etc.) but wanted to bring creative work in dance into their classes. That course was 5 hours a day for two days, while Tito taught the six-day course alone. I don't teach technique any more, so for me it was very simple, or creative, warm-ups, improvisation, individual and group, and choreographic problem solving. At first I wasn't sure I was going to survive that long a day, but I did, and with a good interpreter, my pigeon French and their pigeon English we covered a lot of ground and had a ball.

Then Tito and I got to work together for the remaining four days and it was a great experience for me. Tito taught the technique, I the improvisation, we worked together in the choreography and Tito did the repertory. I learned a great deal working with him and felt really good about the course.

On Friday, the last day we had an informal mini-demonstration, which Tito organized, with the class showing the areas in which we had worked. Then, we were a part of a panel discussion with French presenters, dancers and philosophers, very much revolving around Nik's concept of decentralization. It seems that French philosophers, painters, dancers, and writers are discussing the concept of decentralization as it relates to all art forms. Later that evening Dominique Rebaud and Dominique Boivin produced a concert “ou est Nikolais aujord'hui?” (Where is Nikolais today in France?) They presented works by five French choreographers who had been influenced by Nik, plus Tito, who graciously agreed to improvise with some of Nikolais's slides. He was wonderful and it was a very unique evening.

On my last Saturday afternoon in Paris, (Tito stayed another five days teaching at the Conservatoire de la Danse in Paris, another huge dance conservatory.) Tito, Dominique and I met Carolyn and her son Aleksi at their home, and in a slight rain, walked to Père Lachaise Cemetery to see Nik’s burial plaque. The soft drizzle was very appropriate. We returned and spent a lovely afternoon reminiscing, and in the evening attended a dance performance choreographed by Australian Garry Stewart (Sidney) at Théâtre de la ville, which all of you old time Nikolais dancers know very well.

So, many thanks to all of you Nikolais alumni for including me in the Nikolais “family.” And thanks to Nik for all he gave all of us, and to Murray for giving our company the opportunity to dance Nik’s works, and to Tito for his commitment to keep them alive, for putting up with me, and for all I have learned from the incredible aforementioned trio. Many thanks also go to Dominique and Mark for their persistence, love, smarts and ability to pull off such a wonderful tribute to Nik.