ALWIN NIKOLAIS was born in 1910 in Southington, Connecticut. He studied

piano at an early age and began his performing career as an organist accompanying

silent films. As a young artist he gained skills in scenic design, acting, puppetry

and music composition. It was after attending a performance by the illustrious

German dancer Mary Wigman that he was inspired to study dance. He received

his early dance training at Bennington College from the great figures

of the modern dance world: Hanya Holm, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles

Weidman, Louis Horst, and others.


In 1940, in collaboration with Truda Kaschmann, his first modern dance

teacher Mr. Nikolais received a commission to create Eight Column Line,

his first ballet. The work was presented at one of the events of the Hartford social season that counted Salvador Dali and Leonide Massine as honorary patrons, and was well received.


After teaching two years at his own studio and touring the US with dancers from Hanya Holm's company, Mr. Nikolais did active duty in the Army during World War II. Mr. Nikolais relocated in New York City following the war and resumed studying with Miss Holm. Eventually he became Miss Holm's assistant, teaching at her New York school and at Colorado College during the summers. In 1948, Mr. Nikolais was appointed director of the Henry Street Playhouse, where he formed the Playhouse Dance Company, later renamed and known as the Nikolais Dance Theatre. It was at Henry Street that Mr. Nikolais began to develop his own world of abstract dance theatre, portraying man as part of a total environment. His unique choreographic works placed him in a realm previously untouched by other choreographers. Mr. Nikolais redefined dance, as “the art of motion which, left on its own merits, becomes the message as well as the medium.“ It was also at Henry Street Playhouse that Mr. Nikolais was joined by Murray Louis, who was to become a driving force in the young Playhouse Company, Mr. Nikolais' leading dancer and longtime collaborator.


While developing his choreography, Mr. Nikolais' lifelong interest in music led him to create his own scores. He reinterpreted music as the art of sound, not as a form enslaved to scales, rules of harmony or meter. He experimented with everything from automobile parts to east Asian instruments to gain a sound library. Eventually he manipulated the various sounds by use of tape recorders. A Guggenheim Fellowship allowed him to purchase the first electronic synthesizer from Robert Moog.


In 1956, the Nikolais Dance Theater was invited to its first of many appearances at the American Dance Festival. With this, his total dance theatre had begun to take shape, and the company established itself in the forefront of American contemporary dance. With the company's extraordinary successful 1968 Paris season at the Theatre Des Champs-Elysees, Mr. Nikolais' impact on dance grew internationally. Following the Paris triumph, the company began performing in the world's greatest theaters. Here began a long artistic relationship with the Theatre de la Ville starting in 1971 and continuing now after his death.


In 1978, the French National Ministry of Culture invited him to form the Centre Nationale de la Danse Contemporaine in Angers, France. In December 1980, he created his 99th choreographic work Schema, for the Paris Opera. At the same time, his choreography for an opera by Gian Carlo Menotti was being staged at the Vienna Staatsoper.


Mr. Nikolais has been lauded for his accomplishments and contributions many times over. In 1987 he was awarded our nation's highest cultural honors, the National Medal of Arts, bestowed by President Reagan, and the Kennedy Center Honors, conferred during a three day round of official Washington events, which culminated in a CBS telecast featuring the Nikolais Dance Theater. He received the City of Paris' highest honor, the Grande Medaille de Vermeille de la Ville de Paris, as well as medals from Seville, Spain, Athens, Greece, and 30 other cities both foreign and national as well as a special citation from New York City's Mayor , which he shared with Murray Louis. Often affectionately referred to as the American Patriarch of French modern dance, Mr. Nikolais is a knight of France's Legion of Honor and a commander of the Order of Arts and Letters.


His accolades from the world of arts and letters included the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award; the Capezio Award; Circulo Criticos Award, Chile; Emmy Citation Award; Dance Magazine Award; the Tiffany Award; and the American Dance Guild Award.


Mr. Nikolais has been granted five honorary doctorate degrees, has twice been designated a Guggenheim Fellow, and was the recipient of a three year creativity grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Mr. Nikolais and his work have been featured in numerous films and television programs in the US and abroad. In 1987, “Nik and Murray,“ a documentary film by Christian Blackwood, aired on the PBS series, “American Masters.“


Choreographer, composer, scenic and costume designer, has blended his many talents into a single aesthetic force. In a career that has spanned five decades, he has left his imprint on every theatrical medium, from Broadway to television. Whenever there is something new, his hand is evident. His lighting wonders, his sound scores, his choreography, and his costumes have influenced the contemporary stage and a generation of choreographers. Mr. Nikolais is the creator of the internationally acclaimed Nikolais Dance Theater and the genius responsible for dozens of visual masterpieces.


As a uniquely original exponent of American contemporary dance he toured throughout Europe and subsequent tours to South America and the Far East. Mr. Nikolais is renowned as a master teacher, and his pedagogy is taught in schools and universities throughout the world. He passed away May 8, 1993 and is buried in Pere La Chaisse cemetery in Paris.



    -Grand Medaille de Vermelle de la Ville de Paris – 1988

    -Vignale Festival (Italy) Award – 1987

    -Gold Medal- City of Lyon (France)-1986

    -Gold Medal – Aix-en-Provence (France)-1985

    -Chevalier dans l’Ordre de la Legion d’Honneur

    French Embassy, New York-1984

    -Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts ET des Letters, Paris-1982

    Presented by the Minister of Culture: Jack Lang

    -Bronze Hugo from Chicago International Film Festival-1980

    -Bitef Theater Award, Belgrade, Yugoslavia-1968

    -Grand Prix International Festival de Danse, Paris-1968





    -Tiffany Award, New York City-1988

    -Kennedy Center Honors, Washington, DC-1987

    With Nathan Millstein, Sammy Davis Jr. Bette Davis and Perry Como

    Presented at the White House by President Reagan.

    -American Dance Guild Award, New York City-1987

    -Kennedy Center Alliance Award, Albany, NY-1987

    -Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award, Durham, NC-1985

    -Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Grantee-1975 and 1985

    -Bronze Hugo from Chicago International Film Festival-1980

    For AVIARY: A Ceremony of Bird People

    -Capezio Award for Career Excellence, New York City-1982

    -National Endowment for The Arts Grantee-1966 to the present

    -Emmy Citation Award-1968

    -Dance Magazine Award-1968

    -Guggenheim Fellow-1964 and 1967





    -Ethel H. Barber Award, Northwestern University, Chicago-1983

    -Mayor’s Citation for Alwin Nikolais Week, Madison, Wisconsin-December 3-10,


    -Ann Arbor Festival Award for Totem in collaboration with Ed Emshwiller-1964





    -Colorado College, Colorado Springs, CO-1988

    -University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT-1985

    -University of Illinois, Champagne/Urbana, IL-1985

    -Philadelphia College of The Performing Arts, Philadelphia, PA-1984

    -Washington University St. Louis, MO 1979





    -Mayor David Dinkins of New York City declared July 19th, 1993 “Alwin Nikolais



    He contributed to many seminars and served on many boards. He was active in

    government and Educational matters dealing with dance.





    1966-1967    Director Association of American Dance Companies.

    1967-1977    Member NY State Council on the Arts.

    1967-1969    Fulbright Committee Exchange Artist.