Nagrin on How to Dance Forever

Friday May 7, 1982

Lois Greenfield

Daniel Nagrin will perform two works tomorrow at the Studio Theater.

By Jennifer Dunning

Daniel Nagrin has an unmistakable style. His dances are dramatic. His way of moving, with the intense, precise deliberation of an animal can be stunning. Say that to Mr. Nagrin, however, and his reaction is likely to be equally stunning. “It’s got nothing to do with form or content,” he says straining up and away from-his chair as he makes his point. “It’s got to do with giving a damn about other people.”

Mr. Nagrin has been dancing for 40 years now in a career that is still going strong. Tomorrow at 8 P.M., he will be performing his recent “Poems Off the Wall” and his new Bartok “Sonata for Solo Violin” at the Studio Theater, 555 Broadway, near Prince Street. (Tickets are $5; Theater Development Fund vouchers are accepted. For reservations, call 924-0077.)

Mr. Nagrin is probably best known for solo concerts, which he has been performing since 1957, when the tap dancer Paul Draper talked him into trying a solo dance program.

His work has long been informed by that sense of “giving a damn.” Sitting in his cramped SoHo loft, Mr. Nagrin grabs a newspaper and reads aloud a blurb for the post-modernist “Para-Narrative” Spring Dance Festival to be held at Public School 1 in Long Island City this weekend. “These choreographers are ‘rethinking the referential import of movement and gesture,’ What have they been doing up until now?” he says, grinning. “It’s like Pesach: Why is this night different from all others?”

He unpins a flyer from the wall, an advertisement for a seminar in which he will participate. The seminar, called “Social Issues and the Arts,” will be held at Jane Adams’s Hull House in Chicago. There is plenty to talk of besides tomorrow’s performance.

Asked how he began his career, Mr. Nagrin replies, “Does anybody ask a banker that?” But he then settles back into his chair and reflects. “I was trying to do the box step one summer in high school,” he says. “I was always slow physically so I worked on it at home. I couldn’t make the step fit the music so I started to do it another way. My family moved around a lot, and I’d finally given up trying to break into new gangs. I’d stay in the house with the radio on, jiggling around. I didn’t know it was dancing. Of course, I’d give anything to know what I was doing then. I remember sailing over armchairs and the rug pattern racing under my feet. Armenian music really got me going.”

A chance meeting at a party led to his first modern-dance classes in the Martha Graham technique at the New Dance Group Studio in New York. He made his Broadway debut in 1945, appearing in such musicals as “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Touch and Go” and “Plain and Fancy.” He went on to become known as a performer in Broadway musicals and, on the concert stage, as a choreographer of such dances as “Strange Hero,” a portrait of a gangster- “Indeterminate Figure,” and the pacifistic “The Peloponnesian War.”

Mr. Nagrin said he was about to begin work on several books. “The first book is essentially about choreography,” he said, “but it dwells a great deal on the thinking of Tamiris and how useful it is as a very flexible and dynamic way of approaching choreography.” Helen Tamiris, to whom Mr. Nagrin was married, was a leading modern dance teacher and performer who choreographed several Broadway shows.

“History has sort of slipped by Helen,” Mr. Nagrin said “but she was one of the founders. She was self defeating in terms of history and schools, because what she was doing was working from the moment. Each class was different. There was no schema, only that you were constantly thrown into yourself.

“Helen helped people to discover the myriad ways of finding movement or dance metaphors for human action,” he went on. “She felt not only that we could change things but also that things needed changing. And, of course, if either of these are meaningless to you, then an art based on action, or doing rather than looking and appearing, becomes useless. I was shocked to read recently that Flaubert, who with Cezanne probably founded the modern movement, wished above all to write about nothing. And Cezanne raged at fruit and people because they wouldn’t be still. They kept changing.

“Picasso wanted to find different ways of seeing things, so he’d pick innocuous things to look at. One-hundred years of art went steadily like an arrow towards white on white. But what are the things that are being looked at? Ideology doesn’t mean a thing. It’s ridiculous to say that Mondrian was not a good artist. But it’s the art of someone in the process of distancing himself from caring and responsibility.”

Mr. Nagrin also plans to write about improvisation as a creative tool as well as performance and acting technique for dance performers, which he will teach this summer at the American Dance Festival, along with traditional jazz dance.
“Kids today get the best dance training,” he said, “but then they’re thrown out on stage and have to assume a role. You do whatever you dance. Rather than perpetuate a vulgar error, they become deadpan and what is a matter of taste and uncertainty becomes an esthetic.

“I want to write about survival as a dancer – how to last forever. I have. I feel very lonely in this field. ”

And the weekend’s performance? Just tell people to come tomorrow, early in the run,” he said. “It gets more expensive the longer they wait.” He was not joking. Ticket prices escalate each week for performances Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday through May 20, until May 22, when they reach $25 a seat.

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