Always celebrated as the master showman of American modern dance, Alwin Nikolais also proved one of the idiom's most beguiling revolutionaries. His death of cancer Saturday at age 82 came in the midst of a retrospective season shared with his colleague and life-partner, Murray Louis--a season confirming both the razzmatazz of his theatrical style and the innovation underpinning it.
Before Nikolais, Euro-American dance nearly always focused on individual human experience and expression, accepting man (or woman) as the measure of all things. Nikolais rejected that notion, preferring to seek inspiration in the wider range of motion found in processes of nature--from biological mutation to the movement of the spheres.
One person's feelings aren't very significant from those perspectives, and thus Nikolais always emphasized group activity, reconceiving the stage as an environment rather than a showcase. This concept required him to expand his own role until he not only created the dancers' movement, but also composed the accompaniment, as well as designing the scenery, lighting and costumes.
Each work offered a whole new world of shape, color, sound and motion--a world with its own laws and dramas. Sometimes that world offered a commentary on our society, as in Nikolais' 1979 "Gallery" (danced at Occidental College on April 30), in which shooting-gallery targets take on a life of their own and bear witness to our obsession with violence.
Elsewhere, however, Nikolais' holistic dance-theater turned whimsical or abstract, giving adult audiences the sensation they had as children of watching wondrous things happen that didn't have to be explained, just fully and completely perceived.
A liberated imagination seemed to flourish on both sides of the footlights during such works as "Tensile Involvement" (1953), in which the dancers wove long stretch-ribbons into giant, ever-changing cat's cradles.
In fact, in his attempt to depict the range of motion that exists beyond what the individual human body can achieve, Nikolais didn't settle for mere theatrical wizardry but developed a whole new system of dancing--a new virtuosity.
Working with Murray Louis, he evolved a dance technique for the TV age, one based not on large-scale movement through space but on the meticulous control of small muscle groups. In a fully articulate body, a movement impulse could be focused anywhere: in a shoulder, perhaps. That focus, that shoulder, could then determine the body's deployment of weight, center of gravity, angle in space--anything.
Encased in one of Nikolais' contour-disguising costumes and propelled by the use of these intricate muscular isolations, the dancer could look utterly dehumanized, even disembodied, suggesting a twitching off-balance machine or pulsing protoplasmic blob.
Louis later refined the technique and brought it into the spotlight as one of the major modern dance methodologies. The magician in Nikolais, however, resisted giving his secrets away.
In person, Nikolais was gracious, unpretentious, energetic and always hunting for new artistic delights. Watching him race happily across New Delhi from one event to another at the 1990 India International Dance Festival--where his company created a sensation--you saw someone who had worked hard his whole life to make the kind of art that would be at home anywhere.
His deep personal and professional relationship with Louis forms one of the great, untold stories of American art. From it, along with the remarkable body of work he left behind, we gained a way of moving, a way of seeing, a way of thinking about dance that will always make Alwin Nikolais a name to conjure with.