Alwin Nikolais Centennial

Multimedia dance lives on.

  • Crucible, 1985

  • Liturgies, 1983

  • Imago (The City Curious), 1963

  • Noumenon, 1953

  • Tensile Involvement, 1955

Crucible, 1985

The Alwin Nikolais centenary—at Abrons and the Joyce, for starters—is upon us. By Gia KourlasBefore Phyllis Lamhut became a teacher and choreographic mentor—known for her tough-as-nails approach—she was a principal dancer with Alwin Nikolais, who pioneered a form of multimedia dance. Like her fellow dancers, she was devoted: “He fed. We ate. That’s why he was lucky.” Through props, lighting, moving bodies and great wit, Nikolais transformed theaters into fantastical worlds and dancers into spellbinding creatures. In New York, the Ririe-Woodbury Company—which houses the Nikolais Dance Theatre repertory—presents performances at Abrons Arts Center (the site of Henry Street Settlement, where Nikolais ran his company) and the Joyce Theater. Like Merce Cunningham, Nikolais explored abstraction; while Cunningham worked with the human form, Nikolais—as these photographs attest—created fanciful scenes with lighting, projection and costume. As Lamhut puts it, the work is not ego-oriented. “The emotion,” she says, “is in the motion.”

What was Nikolais like as a man and a mentor?
He was inspiring. He had a lot of information. His class had a development and an excitement and a range of emotional expression. His foray into moving the body through tensions and psychodramatic implications was fascinating—I was 15, and since I was young I didn’t have that much, but it was interesting to see what the older people brought into the picture. In my case, abstraction was perfect. I didn’t know from anything else. [Laughs] Nik was a wonderful man. A lot of fun, with a wit. A great cook and a wonderful host. As a mentor, he taught me everything. What is a mentor? If I’m a mentor to people now, what I try to do is support what they do and enhance their vision of themselves. I feel I was made aware of what a transition was or if my head wasn’t in the right position or the fact that something was really quite wonderful and that I should notice it, or that something was not so wonderful. He said, “You’re supposed to throw things away.” What I try to do is enrich the moment of creativity so that the person actually involved in the creative process is inspired rather than defeated. Now I’m tough. Nik was not tough. On some people he was, and I think he could recognize when there was not much talent. He could see when somebody was ready—willing to make changes. Sometimes when you’re choreographing, it’s very hard for you to make a change and you want it your way, and you need to have an openness to inspire that part of yourself. This is what Nik did well: In every person’s head is a kernel, kernel of creativity, and it was Nik who was able to open up that. [When I started with him] I knew nothing. I never made a dance. The reality is if you have a wonderful teacher that can bring out your creative process, you’re on your way.

How did he do that?
It took a long time. Nik began to develop questions: What is the weight of motion? What is the qualitative sensibility? Structure varies with what you’re doing. Individualizing your work, which is different from style. Each work has its own style; you don’t put your style on every work. The thing that made us really pure was a subject we had called “interludes,” where we just did movement that was so clean and so well balanced. Our reference was a sushi cutter. Perfect. The knife is perfect, the body is perfect—you are in a place of awareness of your activity, and I think that activated the kernel. Can you develop your own sensibility? Can you pull in and then somewhere, mysteriously, something will come out? What is the meta-kinetic transmission? All these things we learned. I can’t honestly remember—I stayed with Nik for 20 years. This is different from going to workshop to workshop. That’s very important. After six years, one day we had class onstage; Nik was playing the piano and I was in second position pli and I felt my hips were under me. This is after six years of working. Suddenly, it locked in. I felt is what I’m saying. It is huge. And also how to feel out material—now, physicality overpowers perception. There are beautiful dancers nowadays but as far as creating is concerned, I cannot impress upon you the importance of simultaneous improvisation. It is major. We could dance anything anywhere. We could dig into ourselves and find things. That spontaneity is just marvelous.

What was the technique class like?
We had Pilates because Hanya Holm [who was Nikolais’s mentor] was a friend of [Joseph] Pilates. I maybe only had two classes with Hanya. We had Pilates, like mat work, for 35 minutes and then we stood for 20 minutes—we did plis and rlevs and leg work—and then we came across the floor for an hour. The class started slowly with a particular point of view. For instance, if the chest needed to move, Nik would do a class only on chests and he would develop material where, by the time we did our leaps, we had chests.

Because you’d been doing it until it was natural?
Yes. And hips—moving circularly in tilting planes. A lot of spatial work. The whip of the spine. Not the stiff spine.

What was the core point, referring to how you held yourself in space?
We have the three-dimensional self: a sense of height, depth and width so the body is expansive. You look at an arm nowadays: I tell my class, “I wouldn’t put your arm on a dog’s rear end.” I tell them to go outside and watch a dog’s tail. They’re lovely! There was a patience when you’re building something and he evidently knew what he wanted and we were there for him. Twenty years is a whole other thing: You just grow. He developed us as choreographers simultaneously. Our creative work was nurtured and we learned concepts of space, time, motion, shape and energy.

What do you think of groups like Momix and Pilobolus?
I think that they’re influenced; I think Nik was more poetic than they are, really, in the end, and I think Nik was more complicated in what he did. I find that they can set up an idea, but they can’t develop it. I think Nik develops it better. They can set it and you’re okay for a quarter of it. But I haven’t seen them for quite a while. If they’re influenced by Nik, that’s good; I think my critique choreographically perhaps could be the patience to develop a piece a little further in terms of a creative process. To make the work never sit, to move on. That’s what happens. I’m engaged for a while. Moses [Pendleton] always had good ideas and then they sort of sat there and a lot of people are that way because you have to develop. Development is very painful. And it’s not au courant. It’s better to choreograph in little snippets and to put them together than to understand how to develop an idea. Choreography is complicated if you think big. If you don’t think in a box.

How did Nikolais incorporate improvisation into your training? And had you ever done it before?
Never. I’d never heard the sound of a drum before in a dance class! Because I was young I liked the way improvisation felt and, for me, that was the creative kernel. That was the beginning of being stimulated. All improvisation classes were different, but let’s say he was working on how do you transfer your focus to points in space? How do you work with your body to indicate points in space? We would improvise and figure it out. Once, I don’t know what the problem was, but one dancer went up over the doorway and came down and we did that in Prism—we went up the cyc [cyclorama] and came down. We would spend an hour on feet or hands. Or he’d say, “How would you use gravity?” He didn’t tell us how to do anything. “Where is it? What would you do?” All kinds of subjects. If we did lifts, they were spontaneous. Or do an improvisation where you’re always on a tilted plane. What about fluidity? Can you constantly be fluid? Can you do mirror improvisations where you follow each other? It’s very good to have improvisations to develop a group because you become very sensitive to how you move. We were good movers. It was a good feeling. I would love for this generation to take more time in their training; less gorge and more fine dining.

Nikolais’s approach was partly formulated after he returned from a stint in the army when he realized that his dances shouldn’t be about man and woman, but the environment and life. As a result, critics began to write that his dances were dehumanizing. How did the company react?
We were just upset. You can’t always think about what people think. I really feel you have to consider what people say and filter it and if you’re strong enough you can learn from it, and then you can reject it or move forward in some way. I think it’s an oscillating mental state. You go forward and I feel we went forward; we felt very human. We didn’t relate to it really. What is dehumanization in relation to dance? Now ballet—that’s dehumanization as far as I’m concerned because the people doing it are not human. Now you may look at me like I’m crazy...

Is it because you don’t like ballet?
I love ballet! I love ballet! But they’re frozen in their technique. Not everyone. It’s so codified and it’s exquisite and I love it, but when you’re thinking about what is human? Does human mean you have big boobs? Big hips? Is it flesh or are you really thin? Do you have 42 dancers who are all the same?

I see—is it a Rockette?
Yes. That’s what I mean. I love ballet. Started in it, love it.

Did Nikolais give you your eye?
Oh yeah. You could see. The eye was from Nik and then coaching—Ruth Grauert, who was his assistant, would coach me. I would do a solo and she would say, “Phyllis, you’re not doing your transition perfectly. See if you can find out how to get from A to Z.” And Nik would say, “You’ve got something here, but you’ve got to figure out a way to put it together.” He never interfered. He just made me work on it. And I worked. The eye came from them. And I have to give Ruth credit for taking me in hand like a mama. And I have that eye.

The Alwin Nikolais Centennial is at Abrons Arts Center May 1 and 2 and the Joyce Theater May 4--9. From the Horse’s Mouth: Remembering Nik is at Abrons on Apr 30.

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