(b Southington, Conn., 26 Nov. 1910; d New York, 8 May 1993)
US dancer, choreographer, composer, designer, teacher, and director. He had an unconventional background for a dancer, working first as an organist for silent films and then as a puppet master. He studied dance with Truda Kaschmann and Hanya Holm, later with Graham, Humphrey, Weidman, and Horst. His first full-length work was Eight Column Line (mus. E. Křenek), which had its debut in Connecticut in 1940. He became Holm's assistant after doing his military service during the Second World War. In 1948 he was appointed director of New York's Henry Street Playhouse, a centre for experimental theatre, where he remained until 1970. It was here he met Murray Louis, who was to become a lifelong collaborator. While extensively reorganizing both the Henry Street school and the company, which later become the Nikolais Dance Theater, Nikolais developed his aesthetic of total dance theatre. This treated dance as one element in an integrated spectacle, which in itself eschewed narrative and character in the creation of spectacular stage imagery. Dancers were often unrecognizable, due to the disguising effects of costumes, props, and lighting and, as puppets of Nikolais' larger vision, they were often compared to aliens from outer space, or organisms under a microscope. Nikolais acted as his own designer and composer—most of his productions featured music written by himself—and he painted his own slide projections. One of his most important works was Masks, Props, and Mobiles (1953), in which the cast were concealed inside large bags, which were then stretched into different shapes by the choreography. The idea, said Nikolais, was to help the dancer ‘identify with things other than himself’. He retired from performing in 1953 to devote himself to choreography, costume design, and lighting. In 1963 he was one of the first artists to use the newly invented Moog synthesizer. The Nikolais Dance Theater first toured Europe in 1965 and its 1968 Paris debut was such a success that ten years later Nikolais was invited by the French government to form the Centre National de Danse Contemporaine at Angers. He created two works for the Paris Opera Ballet: Schema (1980) and Arc-en-ciel (1987). In 1989 his American company merged with that of Murray Louis to form Murray Louis and Nikolais Dance, an ensemble that performed both choreographers' repertories and was directed by Louis after Nikolais' death. In 1999 the company was phased out by the Nikolais-Louis Dance Foundation, in order for it to focus on educational projects based on the two men's work. However the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company continue to perform the Nikolais-Louis repertory. A list of Nikolais' own works includes Tensile Involvement (1953), Noumenon (1953), Kaleidoscope (1953), Prism (1956), Totem (1959), Allegory (1959), Imago (1963), Vaudeville of the Elements (1965), Sanctum (1964), Somniloquy (1967), Triptych (1967), Tent (1968), Echo (1969), Structures (1970), Scenario (1971), Grotto (1973), Tryad and Styx (1976), Gallery (1978), The Mechanical Organ (1980), Persons and Structures (1984), Video Games (for the 1984 Olympics), Contact (1985), Crucible (1985), and Aurora (1992). US National Medal of Arts (1987).