A Lesson From The 1940s: Expression In Just A Few Bold Strokes

March 25, 1994

Julie Lemberger

Carl Flink performing in Daniel Nagrin’s “Strange Hero” at the Joyce Theater.

By Anna Kisselgoff

Today’s experimental choreographers could learn a thing or two from the solos that Daniel Nagrin created in the 1940’s. Three are part of the Limón Dance Company’s current season and the first two, revived on Wednesday night, are not to be missed.

The Joyce Theater (175 Eighth Avenue, at 19th Street, Chelsea) is a perfect frame for these corrosive miniatures. In the first solo “Strange Hero,” Carl Flink’s gangster protagonist retreats from a tough-guy swagger’ with flying diagonals across the entire stage. In “Spanish Dance,” Pamala Jones follows a, more amplified and serpentine path. Both pieces are performed with exceptional power, exceptional articulation.

Mr. Nagrin needs only a few strokes to paint these animated Cubist portraits, to get at the essence of his subject’s inner reality. At a time when younger choreographers who have been brought up on post-1960’s formalist esthetics are struggling with the basics of dramatic expression, Mr. Nagrin stands out as a model.

Like José Limón, who died in 1972, Mr. Nagrin belongs to the generation of choreographers responsible for what is now regarded as the mainstream of modern dance. But one man’s avant-garde is another’s mainstream, and even today, or especially today, it is possible to see how experimental these solos are. Both were created in 1948, the same year Limón choreographed his masterpiece, “The Moor’s Pavane,” a work that is featured on another program this season.

Limón’s idiom, derived from Doris Humphrey’s principles of fall and recovery, looks less fragmentary than Mr. Nagrin’s, which relies upon a sharper use of gesture. But in each case, the point is that the gesture is the movement, and gesture, as acting, is never imposed upon the movement.

Mr. Flink, for example, achieves a dimension of projection in “Strange Hero” that is unexpected given his skillful self-effacement in the group works. His character is distilled from the start and yet reserves some surprises. Big-time gangster or small-time mod? In the end, as Mr. Nagrin shows, each type has the same fears.

Mr. Flink enters with total cool. In suit and tie and with a cigarette in his mouth, his profile is a study in self-awareness, a cardboard cutout calculated for effect. The music by Stan Kenton and Pete Rugolo, played wonderfully by Michael Cherry on the piano, rumbles on with soundtrack effectiveness, and Mr. Flink, superbly weighted and square in his movement, suddenly unleashes the dynamic spurts that tell the strange hero’s story. A sudden drop into a pilé, a slide to the floor and a spring or a series of incredibly fluid falls recount a furtive existence covered up by surface bravado. Cornered, the dubious hero goes down shooting, dying multiple deaths.

Mr. Nagrin created “Spanish Dance” as a solo for himself, but has now cast a woman in it. The crucial word in the subtitle, “An Impression of Flamenco Dance,” is impression and it is because he has distilled the spirit of flamenco rather than copied its idiom that the choreography can support such unisex casting.

Ms. Jones, in gray pants and top designed by Pat Walker, starts out in profile, arms folded behind her back while Mr. Cherry’s playing of Genevieve Pitot’s score introduces the Spanish motifs. Mr. Nagrin is more oblique, scattering shards of flamenco dynamics through an occasional swivel on the knee or a torso contraction to symbolize a generalized passion. Ms. Jones magnificently captures the duende, or soul, vital to flamenco; she plunges deeper and deeper into an inwardly concentrated performance.

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