Southington native among dance luminaries highlighted in new photo exhibit

By MIKE CHAIKEN

EDITIONS EDITOR

The history of dance in Connecticut will be illustrated with photographs.

And as part of an upcoming exhibit, which was organized by the Connecticut Dance Alliance and was due to open Jan. 19 at the Connecticut Historical Society, the opening night focus was to be placed on a Southington man who helped shape the dance world… not only in Connecticut but across the globe.

Bring up the name of Alwin Nikolais in casual conversation in his hometown, you might get a “Who?” or a blank stare.

But in the world of dance, his name looms large.

And he is one of the names that pops up in “Connecticut Dances—A Visual History,” was organized by the Dance History Project of the CDA.

Jill Henderson, the director of the Dance History Project, said Nikolais – born in 1910 and who passed away in 1993— was an important arts figure, not only in the Nutmeg state but across the globe.

“He had a small (dance) company in Hartford,” said Henderson. He was part of a dance troupe at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. And he was a figure on the international stage. (For example, his piece “Schema” was performed in Paris in 1980, the same time his choreography for an opera by Gian Carlo Menotti was performed at the Vienna Staatsoper.)

“He was very much a presence,” said Henderson. “He was a luminary of Connecticut dance.”

Describing the life of Nikolais, Henderson explained he arrived in the world of dance at an age much later in life than was typical for dancer.

When the Southington native graduated from Lewis High School (now Southington High School), said Henderson, Nikolais was a musician not a dancer. He played in the high school marching band.

But as a young man, he attended a dance performance. The performance was very different from the classical ballet he had seen before.

“He was very inspired,” said Henderson.

In a 1992 interview with Susan Beaucar Palmer, which was provided by CDA, Nikolais said, “I was born in Southington, Connecticut and I was taken to see Mary Wigman. She was Truda (Kaschmann)’s teacher. (Kaschmann brought modern dance instruction to the Hartford School of Music.) I fell in love with what I saw Wigman do.”

During his time in Hartford and Connecticut, Nikolais eventually worked with the legendary Chick Austin, who turned the Wadsworth Atheneum and Hartford into one of the THE places for the arts in the 1930s and 1940s. (In the 1992 interview, Nikolais said, “Chick Austin was the ‘big bad boy’ of the arts in Hartford… and a wonderful stimulation to all of the arts.”)

Nikolais also had his own theater in Southington (“We scraped down an old burned fish market and made a little theater of it. We did plays which didn’t require royalty payment. So along with Michael Adrian, I very often directed parts of things or whole little plays,” he said in 1992.) He worked with the Hartford Federal Theater in the 1930s as a choreographer— brought their by Adrian— who had been a Hollywood director at that point.

Henderson said Nikolais was a trailblazer in that he was one of the first “total theater” performers. He did everything. He handled choreography He created his own sound design. He created the light design  as well.

As a choreographer, said Henderson, Nikolais was unique in how he used his dancers. Typically, he used his dancers as objects to create “visually astonishing effects… so the dancers always became integral with what audience was seeing.” He used dancers, explained Henderson, more like props on stage.

Henderson said there were many possible figures in the world of dance in the state who could have served as a figure for the opening night of “Connecticut Dances: A Visual History.” But the decision was made to dedicate the opening to Nikolais because of his international renown and his radical and creative approach to choreography.

As part of the evening, the Dance History Project even invited the sole remaining member of the 1940-42 Nikolais’s dance company, Ruth Grauert, 97, to speak about the man. Also a former soloist with Nikolais Dance Theatre, Lynn Needle, was invited to perform Nikolais’s “Noumenon.”

The Connecticut Dance Alliance in partnership with the Connecticut Historical Society will present “Connecticut Dances- A Visual History” at the Connecticut Historical Society, 1 Elizabeth St., Hartford through March 4.

The exhibition is the culmination of a crowd-sourcing initiative “All About Dance in Connecticut” that documents the many facets of the history of dance in Connecticut through an on- line gallery collection of over two thousand photographic images submitted by members of the Connecticut dance community over the past two years. The total collection of images can be viewed at www.flickr.com/groups/2734781@N25/.

“Connecticut Dances- A Visual History” eventually will travel throughout Connecticut. The tour listing as it develops can be found on www.ctdanceall.com.