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Painting Space: Connecticut's Avant-Garde Dance Pioneer Alwin Nikolais

A scene from Nikolais' "Imago Suite"

Avant-garde choreographer Alwin Nikolais was more than a modern dance pioneer -- he was a designer, an early multimedia artist, and a composer. Thursday in Hartford, dancers and historians will gather for a panel discussion on this 20th century icon, whose early years in Connecticut helped shape his later works. 

Nikolais was born in Southington in 1910 and was drawn at an early age to the performing arts. He learned to play the piano when he was a boy, and as a teenager he accompanied silent films at the Westport Movie House.

Nikolais was also interested in puppetry. In the mid-1930s he was the director of the Hartford Parks Marionette Theater.

Peter Kyle is an associate professor of theater and dance at Trinity College in Hartford and a former Alwin Nikolais dancer.

He believes these two early occupations -- silent film musician and puppeteer -- had a profound impact on Nikolais’ art.

“He’s developing a relationship between time, motion, and space,” Kyle told Connecticut Public Radio. “He’s already experimenting with ideas about these elements, and that serves him incredibly well later, once he discovers dance and starts studying here in Hartford as a 20-something-year-old.”

Nikolais started his first dance company in Hartford in 1937, but it was after a stint in the Army during World War II that his unique multimedia approach to dance took shape.

“He developed into this incredible multimedia pioneer and was experimenting with electronic music and colored lighting and projections,” Kyle said. “He was looking at how all of those elements could serve the bigger idea that for him was using the intersection of sound, motion, light, and color almost like a visual artist would, to kind of paint space.”

Alwin Nikolais died in 1993.

Kyle is working with dancers from Trinity and other Hartford-area institutions on a performance later this month of some of Nikolais' most iconic works.

The panel discussion “Alwin Nikolais: A Touchstone for Creativity” gets underway Thursday, Nov. 7, at 6:15 p.m. at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford.

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series Where Art Thou? Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of Morning Edition, and later of All Things Considered.

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