Humphrey Dance Company director leaves room for interpretation

October 22, 1994|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to The Sun

Mino Nicolas knew next to nothing about modern dance when he responded to an audition notice during his student days at Towson State University in the early 1970s.

Raised by Greek immigrant parents in Hamilton, he remembers being "dressed in a flannel shirt and blue jeans and walking into a room [at TSU] where the dancers wore leotards. I had no idea what this was all about. I had no idea who choreographers like Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey were -- which is funny now."

It's funny because Mr. Nicolas is now artistic director of the Doris Humphrey Repertory Dance Company, which is dedicated to presenting the late choreographer's work. The company, whose approach to remounting half-century-old Humphrey pieces has sparked controversy within the dance world, appears tonight in Stephens Hall Theater at Towson State University.

For Mr. Nicolas, who recently stopped dancing in the company, this performance falls on his 39th birthday. Aside from some "studio concerts," he says it will be his first Baltimore performance since 1979.

Thinking back to his TSU days, the 1976 alumnus notes that despite his degree in clinical psychology, his real passion was for modern dance. "There was something about the way dance made connections for me," he says from his home in Princeton, N.J. "I navigated experiences I was having through the [dance] movement."

A former teacher recalls that Mr. Nicolas' interest in dance

soared in those collegiate years.

"It was refreshing that here was a young man at a time when there were few men in dance, and he was very interested in the historical context of the art form and didn't just want to dance," says Chrystelle Bond, chair of the Goucher College dance department, where Mr. Nicolas took several classes while enrolled at Towson.

After graduation, he worked as a performer and teacher at local venues including the Theatre Project, Baltimore School for the Arts and Catonsville Community College, while holding down a part-time sales job.

Like so many dancers, he moved to New York. There, his teachers briefly included Martha Graham herself. Among his professional achievements since then was forming the American Repertory Dance Theater Company with the late Eleanor King in 1978.

His interest in Doris Humphrey (1895-1958) grew even stronger through such activities and eventually led to the formation of his current company in 1992. Although he's looking forward to celebrating the centennial of her birth next year, his approach to that legacy has stirred up a tempest within the dance world.

Indeed, Mr. Nicolas says his approach has recently been criticized by Humphrey's son, adding that this is the same person who previously granted him performance rights to do Doris Humphrey's work.

So what exactly is Mr. Nicolas doing with these dances? Feeling it isn't enough to only rely on Humphrey's written notations for each dance, Mr. Nicolas' remountings use what he learns from interviews with the now-elderly dancers who originated these roles, archival film footage, and also the personalities of his own company members.

"Mino has a kind of notoriety in the dance world," acknowledges Towson State dance department chair Karen Kohn Bradley. "One of the trickiest questions in dance is: Who owns somebody's style?"

Asked about the controversy surrounding his notation-is-not-enough stance, Mr. Nicolas responds with animation: "Notation is valuable to preserve something, but it's only a valuable tool if you have other tools as well. The person who does a work has to learn what that work is about. There are issues of time and place when you do a piece, and there also is a spirit that has to be handed down. It's a very personal thing and there's no way to engrave those dimensions into notation. There is no way to revive Doris Humphrey's dances just from her notation. How can you standardize movement when these works celebrate the spirit of the person doing them? Her work celebrates the individual."

Squarely on the opposing side of the issue is Helene Breazeale, formerly dance chair at Towson State and currently associate dean for its college of fine arts and communication.

As herself a former student of Doris Humphrey's in New York in the mid-1950s, Ms. Breazeale observes: "If the choreography exists in written form, you have to follow that. Having seen the [Humphrey] originals and knowing how they're intended to be, to be seeing something else . . . I suppose [Nicolas] is taking the work from his own aesthetic or what he knows, which is different. In that case it should be listed as 'Choreography By Mino Nicolas After Doris Humphrey' -- just as one says 'After Petipa' for a 20th century reconstruction of that 19th century master's choreography."

HUMPHREY AT TSU

What: Doris Humphrey Repertory Dance Company

When: Tonight at 8.

Where: Stephens Hall Theater, Towson State University

Tickets: $12 general, TSU faculty, staff and alumni; $8 students and senior citizens

Call: (410) 830-ARTS

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