Alberto Del Saz

How I teach the Nikolais/Louis philosophy

Del Saz coaches dancer Austin Sora to use her épaulement to send energy outward, instead of pulling away from her reaching arm.

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

Getty Images

It can be tricky to get away for a conference, whether due to travel budget concerns or finding a substitute to cover your absence. One silver lining of the pandemic is that five conferences are now available online, no travel necessary. You'll find sessions to address your concerns no matter what your role in the dance community—whether you're on the business side, interested in curriculum development, need continuing ed certification, or a performer who wants to teach. Why not gather colleagues from your studio or school for an educational watch party to inspire you as you launch into the new school year?

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Getty Images

Talar compression syndrome means there is some impingement happening in the posterior portion of the ankle joint. Other medical personnel might call your problem os trigonum syndrome or posterior ankle impingement syndrome or posterior tibiotalar compression syndrome. No matter what they name it—it means you are having trouble moving your ankle through pointing and flexing.

Keep reading... Show less
Scott Robbins, Courtesy IABD

The International Association of Blacks in Dance is digitizing recordings of significant, at-risk dance works, master classes, panels and more by Black dancers and choreographers from 1988 to 2010. The project is the result of a $50,000 Recordings at Risk grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources.

"This really is a long time coming," says IABD president and CEO Denise Saunders Thompson of what IABD is calling the Preserving the Legacy and History of Black Dance in America program. "And it's really just the beginning stages of pulling together the many, many contributions of Black dance artists who are a part of the IABD network." Thompson says IABD is already working to secure funding to digitize even more work.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.