Sugar Salon and Daniel Nagrin Head into the Dark

In memoriam: Daniel Nagrin (1917–2009)

In 1988, the year he turned 71, Daniel Nagrin published a book called How to Dance Forever. Whether or not you contemplate such a challenge, you can learn a lot from reading it. This is his last sentence: “Discard what you find useless and garner what you need.” When he died on January 3, he was a few months shy of his 92nd birthday, and he’d been teaching at the University of Arizona until a year ago.

Nagrin didn’t start to study dance until he was around 20, and he created an indelible image of a man who learned to dance, rather than that of a dancer who happened to be a man.

Much of his early performing was in musicals choreographed by his first wife, Helen Tamiris—among them Annie Get Your Gun, in which he had a stupendous solo, and Plain and Fancy. But it’s primarily as a choreographer of modern-dance solos for himself that he’s remembered. Taut and powerful, with imposing cheekbones and jaw, he also had an innate elegance and delicacy— whether moving through the patterns of his 1948 Spanish Dance; playing the gangster who flourishes bravado and a cigarette even as he’s being shot over and over (Strange Hero, also 1948); or roaming, pajama-clad and uneasy, around a lonely room in Indeterminate Figure (1957).

Denisa Musilova, Savina Theodorou, and Robin Brown in "Arena"
Anthony Collins
Denisa Musilova, Savina Theodorou, and Robin Brown in "Arena"

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Sugar Salon
Baryshnikov Arts Center
January 7 through 9

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I have a memory of him dancing alone during a 1950s Chanukah Festival—a small figure in the vastness of the old Madison Square Garden—while Luther Adler, up in a balcony, read from David Ben-Gurion’s diary. At one point, he rose straight up from a kneeling position, rolling over the arches of his feet—the first person I’d ever seen do that—and the huge audience took a collective gasp. In that moment, he embodied with hair-raising theatricality the indomitable spirit of Israel. Who but he had the skill and the chutzpah to take on ancient (and modern) history in his very successful evening-length solo, The Pelopponesian War (1968)? In it, he played many roles, including that of a woman, and explored many dance styles, while Frank Langella’s taped voice read from Thucydides.

In the late 1960s, after his divorce from Tamiris and her death in 1966, he formed a company, the Workgroup (1969–1974). His take on the counterculture and radical experiments in theater and dance led him and his much younger dancers into an exploration of improvised performance. Fierce, playful, erotic—taking chances with their bodies and their feelings, his small ensemble made the audience complicit in each event—second-guessing, anticipating, delighting in unforeseen decisions.

Nagrin wasn’t a man who stood still. Just as he had effortlessly juggled Broadway and concert work, and moved from being a soloist to directing a company, he took up writing (three additional books followed How to Dance Forever) and moved to Tempe in 1982 to join the faculty at Arizona State (he retired as emeritus professor in 1992). He had a gift for teaching and an eagle eye (years ago he walked into his loft, where I was rehearsing with another choreographer, and immediately, concernedly, pointed out that I was carrying my upper body a hair right of center).

He devoted one chapter, “How to Really Dance Forever,” in his 1988 book to film and video. Luckily for us, he can be seen dancing—maybe not forever, but for years to come—in the archives of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Pubic Library.

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