In a studio at Marymount Manhattan College, Alberto Del Saz gently coaches young adults through a floor warm-up. They balance on their tailbones, trying to elongate their spines while their arms and legs float in Vs off the floor. This is their fourth Nikolais/Louis class as freshmen dance majors, and they are fully engaged in the floor exercises, developed to help them find freedom and agility in their bodies when they come to standing. Even in the early stages of class, there is an emphasis on commitment, presence and imagination. “Don’t kick your leg; extend it,” Del Saz says, as the group turns to a side-lying développé and fondu series. “Extend long into a new dimension.”
As a former dancer with the Nikolais/Louis company and co-director (with Murray Louis) of the foundation, Del Saz considers himself the ambassador and keeper of this 60-year-old philosophy of movement—“I hesitate to call it a technique,” he says. “I call it a philosophy because you really have to get to know the principles first.” He believes it can build character in young dancers as much as strength. “This is their first reality check,” he says of his first-year students. It is a chance to build a work ethic, yes, but he hopes for more. “They want to be so good, so perfect, but instead, I want them to find out who they are.”
Taking a break between combinations, Del Saz draws his knees up to his chest and invites the students in close to share the four guiding principles of the avant-garde modern dance pioneers Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis: shape, space, time and motion. Throughout class, he makes frequent use of the founders’ terminology. He pushes the students to contemplate even more abstract concepts particular to Nikolais/Louis: totality—meaning every molecule of the body understands the purpose; immediacy, or being present and open to “the magical moment”; and decentralization, when the self is so engaged in the dance that it is removed from its surroundings. The core of his quietly demanding approach to teaching modern dance is embedded in this heady framework.
Though Del Saz stays true to the warm-up sequences he was taught during his training at the Nikolais/Louis Foundation school lab, improvisation is also a huge part of the method. “The moment you become predictable to the audience, you are doomed,” he says. Indeed, Nikolais Dance Theatre productions were often suprisingly magical, even psychedelic. Del Saz clearly retains an element of the unexpected in his calm command of the room. He seems at once a mix of both enthusiastic rigor and Zen ease. His compact and chiseled frame, clad all in black, threads in and out of the students struggling with the musicality of a longer combination, adjusting form and demonstrating different dynamic possibilities. Poised to move in any direction at any moment, he swivels to face them, making a request for their last round of the phrase: “Keep me on my toes. I am excited about the whole picture here.” He says he teaches knowing the reward for his efforts will come when he doesn’t have to question anymore, when the dancers begin to embrace the freedom in moving with intention and lose themselves in the performance. DT
Alberto Del Saz won Spain’s National Championship for ice-skating in 1979. His dance career began after finishing a tour of Holiday on Ice. He needed a new creative outlet and moved to New York City to train as a dancer. Del Saz wrote to Graham, Cunningham and Taylor before finding a home with Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis. After training in the Nikolais/Louis school for a year, Del Saz joined the company in 1985 and toured extensively until it closed in 1999. He is co-director of the Nikolais/Louis Foundation for Dance and continues to collaborate with and direct the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company (the sole company with rights to Nikolais/Louis work) when they perform Nikolais repertory. He’s also a professor of dance at Marymount Manhattan College and Hunter College.
Dancer: Austin Sora graduated from Marymount Manhattan College in May 2014 and dances with Buglisi Dance Theatre as an apprentice.
Photography by Kyle Froman