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Going Back In Multimedia Time
Universities across the country bring Alwin Nikolais to life.
By Kathy Adams
If Alwin Nikolais were alive today he would soon be making a wish over a birthday cake ablaze with 100 candles. But even the father of multimedia dance might not have imagined a more spectacular celebration than the two-year, two-continent Nikolais Centennial Tour, organized by the Nikolais/Louis Foundation for Dance in partnership with Salt Lake City’s Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. Nor would he have been happier with the guest list.
Nikolais’ career spanned the latter half of the 20th century, and his sphere of influence is worldwide. His vision of “total dance theater” took a radical shift away from the personal drama and theatrical narratives of the early modern choreographers, such as Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey. Instead, he fashioned extraordinary props, designed body-extending costumes, and married techno lighting with experimental music to craft an abstract, nonemotive world. As an educator—and with the help of his longtime collaborator, Murray Louis—he influenced a rising generation of choreographers to push the limits of contemporary dance.
Alberto “Tito” del Saz, artistic director of the Nikolais/Louis Foundation and a former Nikolais dancer, is also the centennial tour’s director. Because he personally experienced Nikolais’ dedication to developing artists and performers, he chose education as the focus of the tour, which began in May of last year and runs through 2011. At least 18 colleges and universities—among them Boston Conservatory, the University of Washington, and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts—will join the foundation in celebrating Nikolais’ legacy. Del Saz is traveling from campus to campus, teaching master classes, offering workshops, and restaging works, including Crucible, Tensile Involvement, and Pond. (This month he’ll be at DeSales University and Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania.) His goal: to bring Nikolais out of the history books and into the studio, ensuring that his contributions to modern dance remain alive and relevant today.
Much of today’s multimedia, nonnarrative dance can trace its roots to Nikolais’ influence. Claudia Gitelman, co-editor of The Returns of Alwin Nikolais and a former teacher at the Nikolais/Louis Dance Theatre Lab, explains that before Nikolais, modern dance was primarily concerned with conveying an emotional or psychological state. “But here was someone who was talking about movement itself, rather than what movement expressed,” she says of first seeing Nikolais perform during the American Dance Festival in 1956.
In working with students, del Saz aims to pass down not just Nikolais’ movement but also the theories underlying it. As a teacher, he explains, Nikolais did not impart a specific style or vocabulary, but rather a philosophical approach to dancing and making dance, one that challenged each individual to find a unique artistic voice—and led many of his students to become choreographers themselves. “This material is about investigating who you are as a dancer or a choreographer,” says del Saz. “I try to allow dancers to find their own way to the essence of motion. I give them the information to allow them to make the right choices for themselves.”
Sara Pearson, co-artistic director of Pearson Widrig Dance Theater, recalls avidly learning this approach when she studied with Nikolais and Louis in the 1970s. “You went to class with Nik and Murray to get in touch with the creative artist in you,” she says. “You did not go to learn a style, like you would with Graham. In their studios, there was such passion, such appetite to create. There was nowhere else I wanted to be. And it was because of the energy that Nik and Murray brought.”
That creative energy flourished around three key concepts that Nikolais called totality, immediacy, and decentralization. These principles may sound lofty, but for students of his technique, they’re as fundamental as a plié. “Immediacy meant a readiness,” says Pearson. “It was the act of being in the present with every cell of your body. With Nikolais, that was the essence of technique. You worked on it at all times.” And yet, Pearson says, “his work wasn’t about presenting yourself. It was just the opposite. Decentralization was this idea that the center of a dance can be anywhere. You had to get your self out of the way to allow for a connection with something huge and timeless and profound and thrilling.”
Last September at Tisch, students became immersed in these ideas during a two-week residency with del Saz, who was there to restage the 1982 work Pond. Gierre Godley, an MFA candidate and Pond cast member, believes that Nikolais’ theories deepen the experience of performing. “When we apply these concepts to our performance, we become more than dancers,” he says. “We become artists.” Tisch students also had the advantage of working with faculty member Phyllis Lamhut, the celebrated Nikolais dancer who joined his company in 1948 at the age of 15. Lamhut recalls Nikolais’ emphasis on improvisation as a means of cultivating movement in the moment. “I never went to college,” Lamhut says, “so Nik was my teacher on every level. Improvisational training was a distinguishing characteristic of his classes. It teaches spontaneous creativity.”
Throughout the centennial tour, the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, whose co-founders were two of Nikolais’ early followers and friends, will be
joining del Saz in residence at several schools. (The company is also touring Nikolais’ work internationally, from Utah to the Netherlands, with a six-night run at New York City’s Joyce Theater in May.) Joan Woodbury feels that Nikolais’ philosophy can be applied to all choreography, that after learning it, dancers can take it with them wherever they go. “Through decentralization, you place your energy inside the material of a dance and fulfill it in all ways—psychically, physically, and emotionally.”
Gitelman adds that Nikolais’ approach in the classroom “empowered teachers to invent in class, so that educating became a creative experience—a way to guide and discover. Because of that, I never grew tired of teaching.” When asked if she misses Nikolais, Gitelman responds as though his concepts have permeated her way of life: “I don’t miss him because he lives on. His methods were durable and have served me well through years of teaching. He is still with me.”
See www.nikolaislouis.org for a calendar of centennial events.
Kathy Adams is the dance writer and critic for the Salt Lake Tribune.
Photo of NYU students in Nikoalis' Pond by Tony Dougherty, courtesy Tisch
Break Your Bad Habits: The Head and the Neck
By Lauren Kay
No matter how hard you try, there’s always that one correction you can’t seem to shake. You keep hearing it class after class: Tilt your chin down, don’t tuck your pelvis, press your shoulders back. Sometimes, even when you’re sure you’ve fixed the problem, you slip back into your old, more comfortable ways just a few days—or a few minutes—later. In our new column, “Break Your Bad Habits,” we’ll be looking at these common tendencies, why they’re risky for your body, and how you can find new patterns to replace them. Each column will focus on a different part of the body. First up: the head and neck.
Habit: Jutting the chin
In an effort to appear taller and more confident—or simply from eagerness to engage in the movement—dancers often slip into this position. While it may give you an extra half inch, it also pulls the head out of alignment with the rest of the spine, making the neck more prone to injury. “Anatomically, the neck can be very vulnerable,” says Rebecca Blanchard, a physical therapist at Westside Dance Physical Therapy in NYC. “Jutting the chin can cause instability and early degeneration in the cervical spine.” It also disrupts the beauty of a continuous line. As Tina LeBlanc, former San Francisco Ballet principal and a teacher at the SFB school, explains, “Pulling the neck forward prevents you from completing the picture of the legs and feet with a complimentary head and arm. It becomes hard to feel where the long, finished line is.”
Break it: To work through this habit, LeBlanc advises “thinking of the entire line. Put your jaw back on your spine, and pull up through the back of your head, not the front.” Be careful, though, not to force the new position. As Lynn Simonson, founder of the anatomy-based Simonson Technique, suggests, “Realign with ease rather than force.” Blanchard recommends trying this gentle exercise before class: “Roll down through only the very upper part of the neck, keeping the chin tucked toward the throat. Hold for about 30 seconds, breathing deeply, and repeat as needed.”
Habit: Foggy focus
The eyes are part of the head, but in class, it’s easy to forget this. Many students get used to glancing sideways in the mirror, rather than looking where they intend to go. LeBlanc believes the eyes and nose should move together. “When I watch a dancer whose eyes are not pointing in the same direction as the nose, I feel they’re being insincere, like when someone is talking to you but not looking at you,” she says. “Directing the eyes clearly helps an audience feel that your dancing comes from inside.”
Break it: For intent, focused eyes, LeBlanc suggests “looking with your nose. Wherever your nose is pointed, your eyes should follow.” Nathalie Jonas, a Feldenkrais practitioner and former modern dancer in NYC, recommends the following exercise: Move your finger slowly in front of your face. The first few times, follow the finger with your eyes and head. Then, follow with just your head, while moving your eyes in the opposite direction. Familiarity with these different sensations will help you to use your eyes actively at all times.
Habit: Throwing the head weight
To avoid injury, the weight of the head (a whole 10 to 12 pounds!) should be handled with care. “When I was first in New York taking jazz class, we’d throw our heads around during neck rolls. I ended up with arthritic neck spurs at 23,” Simonson says. “Drop-
ping the head straight back or forcefully to the side compresses the spine and the nerves running down your arms and chest.” Losing control of the head is especially common in cambré back, says Blanchard, as dancers aim for “a more arched look through the spine.”
Break it: Blanchard advises keeping the head lightly held in cambré, but not stiff. To sense how much effort this requires, lie on your back and tuck the chin just slightly—keeping the back of your skull on the floor—without contracting the larger neck muscles. For head rolls, try the Simonson Technique approach of slow, controlled circles. When rolling forward, the chin moves toward the neck, not the chest; when rolling back, think about creating space (rather than compression) at the base of the skull.
Habit: Holding tension in the neck
When we’re stressed or confused, it can show in a taut, strained neck. This tension, says Jonas, often stems from the upper ribs or chest. “When I ask dancers to touch their upper ribs, most of them go to their mid-torso. But your upper ribs are actually right below your clavicle. So much is connected to this area. If it’s tight, your lungs, breath, neck, and head are restricted.”
Break it: To free the neck, Jonas suggests lying on your back before class, hands on the upper ribs, focusing on the movement there as you breathe deeply. Over time, strengthening the core can also help. “As you strengthen the stomach, seat, and thigh muscles, you lighten the workload in the upper body,” says LeBlanc. “You can relax, and the head and neck become the icing on the cake.” Simonson points out that “if you soften down in front and lengthen in back, you create a more fluid flow of energy. You can’t just fix one piece. Everything exists in a relationship.”
Across The Floor
Bridging Cultures & Campuses
“Maybe you guys should take your socks off, if you’re going to do this full-out. I just don’t want you to slip and fall.” It’s a Thursday night at the Ailey studios in midtown Manhattan, and Joanna Poz-Molesky, a senior in the Ailey/Fordham BFA program, is overseeing a rehearsal for Juntos (meaning “together” in Spanish), the community outreach group she founded in 2008. Her tone couldn’t be more easygoing, but beneath her low-key demeanor is the drive it has taken to rally a group of college students, raise thousands of dollars, and make Juntos a reality.
“Joanna is a sweet, quiet, polite young woman who you don’t realize has this steel inside of her,” says Ana Marie Forsythe, Poz-Molesky’s advisor in the dance program (and this month’s “Teacher’s Wisdom”; see p. 182). “When she first approached me about this project, full of ambition, it seemed like something she might be able to do 5 or 10 years from now. But she really pulled it off.”
In March, Poz-Molesky will lead eight dancers from three New York conservatories—Ailey/Fordham, Juilliard, and SUNY Purchase—on Juntos’ second international excursion: a weeklong trip to Guatemala, where they plan to teach at a school in the city of Quetzaltenango and perform in several nearby towns. During their first trip—a two-week tour of central Mexico last August—a group of 14 led workshops at two orphanages and a folkloric dance camp; performed their student-directed, student-choreographed show in all kinds of venues, from a retirement home to a public plaza to more conventional theaters; and studied with the contemporary company A Poc A Poc in Mexico City. This was only after raising $20,000, a grassroots effort involving garage sales, car washes, and benefit concerts.
Poz-Molesky has a track-record for spearheading large-scale projects with a resourcefulness beyond her years. At 12, the Berkeley, CA, native co-founded her own youth-run dance company, En Pointe (see “Teenage Impresarios,” Aug. 2002), which she directed throughout high school. Her commitment to cultural exchange stems from a childhood spent traveling between Berkeley and the Guatemalan village of Zunil, where her father was born. “I was part of two clashing worlds from a young age,” the 22-year-old says. “My mother is from a white European middle-class family, my father from a poor Mayan community. The people in my dad’s town live very, very differently. Many have almost nothing materially, but they give you everything they have to offer.”
Out of these experiences, Poz-Molesky became interested in “bridging different communities,” using dance as her tool. She stresses that Juntos, which also does outreach in NYC public schools, fosters two-way exchanges. “I think that dance has such a power to bring people together, to help people understand each other,” she says. “With Juntos, the idea is to share our gifts, to leave people with a little bit of what we know, while learning what they can teach us.”
Many students came away from their Mexican travels with a renewed sense of purpose. “At school, going to class every day, it’s easy to lose sight of your reason for dancing,” says Ailey/Fordham senior Kile Hotchkiss. Through seeing “the appreciation, the exuberance” of the children he taught, “I was reminded of why I enjoy doing what I do. It reinvigorated my need to pass on the information I’ve been privileged to receive.”
By joining forces with Juilliard and SUNY Purchase, Poz-Molesky has bridged not only cultures but campuses. “It’s rare to get each school to break out of its individual shell,” says Forsythe, “but Joanna has managed to do it.” See juntoscollective.org. —Siobhan Burke
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School is upgrading its student housing. In November PBT acquired a three-story building that will accommodate up to 16 teenagers and a resident advisor. PBT hopes to complete renovations by the start of its Intensive Summer Program in June 2010.
The Festival Ballet Providence Center for Dance Education opened a new satellite studio in November. Located in East Providence at Rhode Island Philharmonic Music School’s Carter Center, the studio offers two introductory classes for young dancers.