People Who Dance

A Dance Horizons Book, Princeton Book Company
By John Gruen

Daniel Nagrin

On a cold January afternoon, I made my way to a loft located at 550 Broadway in lower Manhattan. I entered the old building to keep an appointment with a dancer who lead invited ale to watch him execute two dances of his own invention.

The dancer was not a young man. The weight of life was clearly discernible in a mall who, even as he greeted me with utmost cordiality, seemed oddly distant, strangely bound by an aura of isolation, somehow immersed in a vast solitude. This sense of diffidence and emotional distance was abetted by an appearance at once forbidding and curiously hypnotizing. A face of stern and even bitter expression, with features suggesting a stylized Oriental mask, revealed both intellectual depth and an immense introspection. This was not a person who looked at the world lightly. This was a man of thought—a man of unusual complexity and strong feeling. This was Daniel Nagrin, The Great Loner of American Dance.

Nagrin, born in 1917, is approaching an age when most male dancers have long retired. Yet, he presents the physical image of someone years younger. His body is strong, trim, lithe, quick, and supple. Only at closest proximity does one note the years, and even then, the semblance of age is communicated more on a psychological than on a physical level. It is as if from earliest youth, Nagrin lead been invested by the resonance of age. When age did come, it remained a natural extension of the past and thus rendered the passage of time mysteriously unnoticeable. This startling manifestation was, of course, nest evident when Nagrin danced.

A single chair had been place(l at one end of Nagrin’s large studio loft. He motioned me to sit and, after adjusting and starting the tape recorder, began the first of the two promised dances. In an instant, the space before me became charged by a presence that announced a heightened meeting of movement and sound. Nagrin, in practice clothes, offered his famous Spanish Dance—his impression of a flamenco dance. Lie had composed it in 1948 to the music of Genevieve Pitot. What met the eye was a flamenco of no real flamenco dancer had ever devised. Nagrin transmuted into a metaphor, a parable of existence, in which the jutting, staccato thrusts of the movements became drenched in myriad alternating emotions. Without ever abandoning the dignity of the Spanish style, Nagrin produced what amounted to a synthesis of its varying emotional underpinnings. With extraordinary economy, his body conveyed all that lay beneath the dance: from tenderness to pride to sadness to excitement to brutality. The dance seemed to follow in the natural dynamics of a turning prism, its colors moving slowly or swiftly within its forceful vortex.

The flamenco done, Nagrin quickly turned to the next dance, a work called “Strange Hero”. It lasted but 4 minutes, but within that brief time span, a new set of powerful emotions were laid bare. This was a solo akin to a play—perhaps by Pinter—in which the inner self was explored by way of dance. It told a story that could be read on many levels. Was this man a killer? A fugitive? A madman pursued by his inner demons? Looking into an imaginary mirror, Nagrin exposed the nerve ends (or paranoia) of a character in the throes of despair. Evoking invisible characters, he lurched from corner to center to corner, now crouching in fear, now bursting out with reckless daring, in a last effort to save his life or sanity. This was yet another transformation in which dance translated into pure theater.

The dancer next set up a screen to show me a film on which a number of other solos had been recorded, most of them jazz solos, a form Nagrin has perfected throughout the years. Dances such as Jazz Three Times, Blue Man, Bounce Boy, Bob Man, and Man of Action made clear Nagrin’s mastery of an idiom that he has made his own. How oddly seductive to watch this somewhat dour man inhabiting the carefree, biting, languorous, or smooth-and-easy idioms of jazz dancing! But with singular artistry and authenticity, the genre came stunningly to life, as head, eyes, shoulders, torso, arms, and legs produced a counterpoint of subtle rhythms, in which an infallible sense of timing and an infectious wit informed every gesture and movement.

Daniel Nagrin has been a performing artist since 1940, and, since 1957, has made a major career as one of the country’s leading solo dancers. Years of touring, lecturing, and teaching have brought him into contact with a vast public that has invariably responded to Nagrin’s capacity for single-handedly filling a stage with disparate and fascinating characters. Critical accolades and standing ovations have attended Nagrin’s tours.

What amazes is that Nagrin not only dances alone, but is his own manager, set, and lighting designer, as well as sound engineer. As he put it, “I go out really alone: no stage manager, no business manager, et cetera, and it’s quite a thing to get off a plane in Fort Hays, Kansas, will my tape recorder over my shoulder, looking for someone I don’t know who is looking for me. And then: Zap! I am in a world that becomes my only world for a day, a half-week, or a week, designing, setting, and directing the hanging of lights; teaching cues and directing the layout of the sound system with which I travel; performing the concerts; giving lectures-demonstrations, workshops and master classes.”

Nagrin’s distinguished life as a dancer has long been a matter of record. His own recollections of that life, however, have not been made public. It was therefore a rare privilege to speak to Nagrin about his career. Hesitant, at first, to speak openly about his life and work, he became progressively more open and candid.

“I never had any desire to become a dancer,” Nagrin began. “I just wanted to learn the box step, which was the key to social dancing in my day. So, I learned the box step. Then, while I was still in high school, I had gotten into a period where I wasn’t out in the streets with my friends. My family and I moved around a great deal in New York (where I was born), and it just became one gang too many to get into. So, I spent a great deal of time in the house, and I’d study a bit, and then I’d get up and throw myself about—flip on the radio and do some crazy movements. One Sunday, I put on the radio, and there was some Armenian music playing, and it caught me. I moved with it, and I was just flying about, on air, and it became a very exciting experience.”

Instinct goaded the youngster into seeking out and exploring further the mysteries of those first dance sensations. At a party, he observed two women engaged in an argument. One of these, Nagrin recalled, was in a deep contraction, hovering over the floor. She was demonstrating something to a friend who obviously had no use for what she was seeing. Nagrin approached the woman in her unusual exertion, and asked her what she was doing. “Dancing!” she replied. Instantly, Nagrin asked where he could learn such dancing. It would take him an entire year to find out.

He joined The New Dance Group, where he began to study modern dance. What he learned seemed less than enthralling. “I remember talking to a young fellow there, and saying to him, ‘There must be more to modern dance than this!’ He said, ‘There is.’ So, we pulled up chairs, and he proceeded to give a lecture on modern dance right then and there, explaining the Hanya Holm technique, which came out of Mary Wigman’s teachings, with its spatial consciousness, and the Humphrey-Weidman technique, with its fall and recovery, and the Graham technique, with its contraction and release. He demonstrated as he went along. When he got to Graham’s contraction and release, I said, “Where is that taught?,” because I had already been doing that on my own. I switched classes at The New Dance Group and found myself the only male in a class of girls studying the Graham technique. When the term was over, I began to work with a woman by the name of Ray Moses. It was on Ray that Martha Graham had worked out her Lamentation, seeing what it looked like from the outside. Ray was in Martha’s first expanded company, and from her I got a profound connection with dance. But even there, I never had any intention of becoming a dancer. In fact, I was on my way to becoming a psychiatrist, taking courses at City College. I was still young, just at the point of turning 19.”

Nagrin worked with Ray Moses for nearly a year. “She was a wonderful woman and, even today, when I teach, I find sentences springing from my mouth that I know came from her—things like, ‘Your arms should move with the architecture and weight of your legs.’ Or, ‘Your legs should have the specificity and delicacy and tactile sensitivity of your arms and hands.’ She was full of things like that. And she could teach a class of 25 people, and each of us was convinced that she was there for us personally. Then, she more or less retired, and, of course, I thought it an utter betrayal of me that she should live her own life.”

All along, Nagrin attended City College. He graduated, and, with an additional year of postgraduate study, he emerged, not with a degree in psychiatry, but in health education. Concurrently, he studied ballet with Elizabeth Anderson-lvantzova and took modern classes with Helen Tamiris, Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Anna Sokolow, Nenette Charisse, and Edward Caton. These courses of study left their indelible personal and professional marks on Daniel Nagrin who, by the age of 23, had finally come to realize that dance would be his life.

The dancer recalled his encounter with those who shaped his creative thinking, his career, and who ultimately propelled him toward the solo dance form. To begin with, there were Martha Graham and Anna Sokolow; Nagrin made his professional debut in 1940 with the Sokolow company.

“In some subtle way, Anna and I were on similar tracks,” Nagrin said. “We both had an interest in the world and in people—an awareness that the world not only could be a better place, but that people should be aware when it is not so good. We both believed that in one’s art you could perhaps not necessarily change things, but at least point a wavering finger in a certain direction. So, that’s something I garnered from Anna Sokolow What one gets from a person like Martha Graham is not easily summarized in words. One could say that what she gives you is the unequivocal investment of your whole being. Still, what I didn’t connect with and what led to my ultimately working in the solo form was the inherent competitiveness in those situations. It was always in the air, and it is an aspect of our field that I have always been repelled by. The fact is, I never had any desire to be better than anybody else—no sense that I was going to top this one or that one. In Martha’s classes, I could feel that people weren’t always doing something necessarily for themselves, but very often for Martha’s grace. Well, I played with that for a bit, but I didn’t care for it.”

A turning point in Nagrin’s attitude toward himself came during one such class, when a young dancer turned to him and said, ‘Danny, what are you really going to do?’ Nagrin answered, ‘Why, I’m going to dance!’ When the girl said, ‘Really? Why?,’ Nagrin stopped short and considered the question.

“Suddenly, my mind flew over the field of dance, and I saw all the men who were working then. In a sweep, I could see Charles Weidman, Jose Limón, Merce Cunningham, and Erick Hawkins, and I said to this girl, ‘Because I’m going to be dealing with things that the others aren’t going to touch!’ This was a moment of revelation, and it gave me incredible strength.”

What these other dancers were not going to touch was jazz dancing. In 1941, Daniel Nagrin joined Unity House, a performance organization that brought together dancers, choreographers, stage directors, playwrights, actors, and others. Nagrin auditioned as a dancer, but was deemed less than electrifying by Unity House’s resident choreographer, Helen Tamiris. Disappointed but not discouraged, Nagrin went away and set about to improve his jazz technique.

“I worked with a woman named Sue Remos and also with Fanya Chochem. From Sue, I learned the foundations of jazz. We used to go to the Savoy Ballroom and dance together and watch for hours. Those dancers were so brilliant and so elegant! I worked with Sue and Fanya for 1 year. At the conclusion of the year, I auditioned again at Unity House, mainly because Sue Remos was going there, and I wanted her to become my partner. There was a lot of resistance about my getting into Unity house, but, because some one dropped out, I was accepted. I danced a duet with Sue Remos, and this time, Helen Tamiris, toward whom I felt rather hostile, liked what she saw.”

As it turned out, Nagrin’s association with the volatile Helen Tamiris would prove seminal in Nagrin’s development as an artist. The relationship would culminate in marriage, and, ultimately, in the formation of the Tamiris-Nagrin Dance Company.

“Working with Tamiris was quite disturbing,” said Nagrin. “She taught classes, but it wasn’t Graham—it was Tamiris. And she worked very much from impulse. That’s what was disturbing, because I had been brought up on a solid dance technique and background. And I couldn’t find any sense of organization in the way she was teaching. Still, she had a way of making sense out of it. I remember working on a dance called “Shake It and Break It”, to a recording of Sidney Bechet, and I was having a lot of trouble with it. Tamiris said, ‘For whom are you doing this dance?’ In my naive way, I answered, ‘Well, I want to use it in a concert, and I also want to use it for shows and as an audition piece.’ She said, ‘You can’t get everything out of one piece.’ And in the course of our discussion, she began to walk around the room, talking about acting and dancing and how they could be one. This 15-minute talk was the turning point of my work.

“Tamiris would throw questions at me. She’d talk about the Stanislavsky method of acting and link it with dance, and I came to understand how Stanislavsky would ask very simple questions that required very complex answers and an enormous amount of work. So Tamiris would work with me within that context, and, suddenly, instead of trying to do something that would look attractive or that she would approve of, I caught on to the person functioning in the world of movement-metaphors instead of words. Even though my technique was then still quite limited, I began to do things that were virtuosic, and I could do them with conviction. Anyway, from that point on, Tamiris and I became linked professionally and personally for many years.”

Helen Tamiris’s studio on Lafayette Street became the scene of numerous concerts. She and Nagrin offered performances that, early on, caught the eye of the manager of the Rainbow Room. The two dancers were engaged to perform a nightclub act.

“I didn’t like that one bit,” recalled Nagrin. “Even though I knew that people like Charles Weidman and Jack Cole had danced at the Waldorf, it just wasn’t for me. Anyway, I was saved from it all when I was drafted into the service in 1942.”

Nagrin received a medical discharge, due to poor eyesight, and upon returning to civilian life, rejoined Helen Tamiris, who had become interested in choreographing for the Broadway stage.

“Tamiris was a very careful craftsperson. She learned that she could work very quickly, and bring life and dignity to the Broadway musical. We did two shows that never reached New York. One was called Marianne”, about the French underground, and the other was “Stove-Pipe Hat”, which was about Abraham Lincoln. Then, finally, “Up in Central Park” made it, and then Tamiris did “Showboat”, which was a smash. Oscar Hammerstein saw me dance, and he gave me the lead dance role in “Annie Get Your Gun”. I was the chief Indian, and the Indian dance that Tamiris did for me had a lot of excitement, a lot of dignity. Then came the costume, and it consisted of a slightly indecent little flap—and that was it! I was embarrassed by it, because it wasn’t in the spirit of the piece. I felt like a trained monkey.

“Still, it was my first success on Broadway—it was 1946 and no sooner did I get it, than I wanted to stop dancing. Even while performing, I began to study acting, playwrighting, anything, so that I wouldn’t have to dance. Well, what I realized was that I didn’t want to do what was dance on Broadway. There were things between the intention of the choreographer and what finally came out that proved demoralizing. I mean, you were dealing with people—producers of questionable taste or of such remorseless need for super success that it stopped being about art. It was depressing. Nevertheless I kept going, from show to show for a long time. I went into “Lend an Ear”, and Tamiris did “Touch and Go”, and I danced in that with Pearl Lang. Then came “Plain and Fancy”, and I got the Donaldson Award for Best Male Dancer of the 1955-56 season. The following year, I choreographed “Volpone,” which was directed by Gene Franked and that was also a success.”

Daniel Nagrin’s career as a dancer in Broadway musicals would probably have continued far longer, had he not attended a solo dance performance given by Paul Draper.

“I was bombed by the beauty of his work,” Nagrin said. “The curtains closed, the house lights went up, and I went right through the curtain to see him. I said to him, ‘Paul, you gave the most magnifi . . . ‘ and he interrupted me and said, ‘Why aren’t you doing solo concerts?’ He told me there was work out there for a serious dancer. Well, between 1944 and 1955, I was making and performing solo dances all the time—at Connecticut College and elsewhere—but I would do two or three pieces, and there would be something else on the program. I never thought I could sustain a whole solo concert, because of the tremendous energy it requires.

“Well, Paul said to me, ‘Look, you go out with a pianist, do two dances, and then let the pianist go on, and after that come back for two more dances, and then it’s time for intermission. Then you open the second act with a dance and a poem. You dance and talk, and it’s much easier. Your pianist does another turn, you do two more dances, and the concert is over.’ And that’s just what I did. I built my first concerts on that format. I’ll never forget the first concert I did. The pianist was Sylvia Marshall. Tamiris went up with me to a college near Boston, called Wheaton. It flashed through my mind that I wouldn’t be able to sustain it—that I was going to come back in a wheelchair. What happened was that when we were coming back, little snakes of spasm began to curl through my back, and my whole back was just wild. But as I began to do more and more concerts, this phenomenon. These days I don’t go off the stage at all.”

Daniel Nagrin gave his first solo concert in 1957 at the age of 40. Throughout the years, he created a large body of work, including such dances as “Strange Hero”, “Man of Action”, “Nineteen Upbeats”, “Indeterminate Figure”, “Path”, “A Gratitude”, and perhaps his most famous work, the full length “Peloponnesian War”. In those dances, Nagrin created a microcosm of social, political, and psychological attitudes that through dance mirrored the human condition. How does Nagrin go about creating these brilliant, self-sustaining works?

“Well, I read books. I look at people. I listen to music. In my dances, I’m often dealing with certain moments in life, where an individual has to face up to something or to do something that entails personal responsibility. In a certain context, you could say that the spine of my work is what is happening between people. That’s what I deal with. Sometimes, it may have a political context. I know that in our field this area is regarded as somewhat questionable. In the early days, all the modern dancers were terribly aware of historical context and historical movement. Well, I believe that any aesthetic gesture is also a social or political gesture. Much of the modern dance movement want to disclaim this and say that it is interested only in pure movement, or pure beauty, or whatever. But I say, what is more political than the love between a man and a woman?

“Certainly, women have finally picked up their heads and said, ‘Now wait a minute! This is not the way I want the terms of love to be.’ So, you see, the relationship between a man and a woman in a classic pas de deux is a political relationship. I mean; it’s heavy politics when a woman has to be picked up—lifted—by a man. As I say to young women, ‘When you go on a trip with a man, and he puts your bags in the car, he is getting exercise, and you are not. He is getting stronger, and you are not.’ We all know that throughout our civilization, the fact that one person is stronger than another means that certain rules that are not visible are still active. So, I do not know what isn’t political and what isn’t social.

“But as to my dances. When I compose them, I don’t use the mirror a great deal. If I sometimes am unsure of what I’m doing or if I feel my intention is being expressed in a blurry way, then I look at the mirror. At other times, I ask people to look at what I’m doing. When Tamiris and I were together, I would often show things to her, and these were very strange experiences. Though I trusted her eye and her taste explicitly, she had a very rough way of expressing herself. I would start to argue with her, and then she would say, ‘Well, I’m not going to criticize you.’ It was a routine that we had. She’d would always exaggerate some point. Later, I would find out that she didn’t mean it quite the way she had put it, but by then the scare tissue would already have formed. In recent years, I’ve had friends and lovers I’d show things to. I would hear what they had to say and then decide… maybe yes, maybe no… and just go on. When you work alone, you develop a sense of taste. You say to yourself, ‘l don’t like that,’ and you would throw it out. I’ve thrown out many dances.”

In 1960, Daniel Nagrin and Helen Tamiris formed the Tamiris-Nagrin Dance Company. It would last 3 years. Nagrin chose not to dwell on the experience. “It turned out to be not an ideal way of working for me. The way I would work with Tamiris is that she would throw out a situation, and I would improvise around it. l didn’t feel for a minute that I did the choreography. l knew it was her choreography. Anyway, our company met with a lot of financial problems—it was difficult.

Helen Tamiris died of cancer in 1966. By then, she and Nagrin were no longer together. “Tamiris and I worked together from 1941 to 1963, and I’m not sure that I want to discuss the personal aspects of our relationship. We separated in 1963. We were never divorced. Just separated.”

Nagrin continued to concertize and to compose solo dances throughout the ‘60s, and in 1970, began work with The Workgroup, an improvisational dance company, which developed and which led him to explore new areas of body communication. “I felt that through improvisation I had found a level of work that made me feel very good. Through improvisation, I challenged people to follow through on certain tasks that I would set up. It was a very good experiences and it lasted for 3 years.”

Daniel Nagrin leas been involved in numerous other activities and projects. Along with wide concert tours throughout the States, Europe, and the Pacific, he has taught body movement to actors at the National Theatre Institute in Waterford, CT, chaired the dance committee that devised a Bachelor of Fine Arts in dance for the Leonard Davis Center for the Arts at the City College of New York, conducted dozens of workshops and residences around the country, and in 1985 completed the 15-hour Nagrin Videotape Library of Dance, which was presented at New York City’s Joyce Theatre by the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library. His book “How to Dance Forever”, was published in 1988.

Asked to comment on his contribution to dance, Nagrin approached the question with characteristic ambiguity: “I have a resistance to articulate it, because on one level I don’t know, and on another, I do. When I teach for instance, I tell young dancers that I think it’s an error to know what your style is. Once you know what your style is, you are likely to get locked into it. As for me, once I try to define myself, I feel I’ll be locked into that definition. When I watch myself on film, I have a fierce need to forget what I’ve seen, because what I’ve seen was a certain person with a certain style, and I don’t want to have to deal with my memory of that.

“On one level, I know precisely where I’m at, and I know precisely where I have shaken some people so that they could say, ‘Oh, that’s possible!’ or ‘Oh, that’s an area that’s exciting to look at!’ On the other hand, there is much that I do that I don’t know anything about. So you see, definitions are dangerous. The point is, rather than defining myself, I’d rather keep on working. Finally, work and more work is what it’s all about!”

People Who Dance at Google Books.

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