Sugar Salon and Daniel Nagrin Head into the Dark

In memoriam: Daniel Nagrin (1917–2009)

The phrase “dancing in the dark” conjures up visions of romance but also, more ominously, feinting at shadows while keeping an eye cocked for the light at the end of the tunnel. (Think I can’t pack in any more clichés? Just watch me.) “In the dark” by itself enmeshes us in mystery (“What’s going on?” “Dunno”).

As a title, “Sugar Salon” doesn’t immediately suggest enigmas, although the shocking pink jockey shorts on sale in the lobby do send an interestingly mixed message about gender (something to do with ballsy females?). Each year, Sugar Salon, produced by Williamsburg Art NeXus (WAX) and the Barnard College Dance Department, offers a three-month summer residency for three up-and-coming women choreographers and a mentor, plus a shared performance of the resulting works.

I’m not the only audience member in the dark about Anna Sperber’s my imagination lives in the dark, but Charlotte’s imagination lives in the forest, a work-in-progress intended to become a full-length site-specific piece. Initially, the only light comes from the night sky outside the huge windows of the Baryshnikov Arts Center’s studio theater—barely enough to make a few of the red sequins that encrust Charlotte Gibbons and Sperber’s jackets wink fitfully like LED signals. The women stride heavily away from us, turn, come back toward us, turn, walk away, turn. . . . This pedestrian phrase accumulates a hop and a clumsy jumped turn; it covers a little more ground; it gets faster. Meanwhile composer-performer Nate Wooley makes his trumpet sound like heavy breathing, and smoke floats up outside the window.

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

Details

Sugar Salon
Baryshnikov Arts Center
January 7 through 9

We peer into the darkness, which is briefly enlivened by a handsome starburst on the back wall above Sperber’s recumbent form. The luminous design suggests many little eyes jostling to get a better look at her. What is she up to? That, indeed, is the question. For what seems a very long time, we watch Sperber and then Gibbons and Natalie Green play with small spotlights and finally larger ones. Sperber, edging backward, trains a light on her red-clad belly and makes it glow, or kneels and lets her hair fragment the beam. Gibbons and Green illuminate their feet, swing lights on the ends of ropes; one of them holds her hands over a light as if it were a campfire. Their shadows appear as fitfully as Wooley’s sounds. There’s not much dancing in my imagination and quite a lot of fumbling around with equipment; theatricality goes belly-up in blackness.

Heather Olson is good at creating enigmas and puzzles. What are the 12 patches of lawn that flank the stage on either side for in her In the River? One has an apple on it (see below). I like this choreographer’s blend of non sequiturs, eccentricities, wit, and structural finesse, even when baffled by it. Olson, Matthew Rogers, and Kimberly Young—all very fine to watch—do strange things thoughtfully; they might be following a recipe for a cake. They tiptoe in individual circles. They signal to one another. They take off in little leaps, printing arched shapes on the air with their arms. They cluster like the Three Graces—but ungracefully. Olson poses like a stalking cat or draws an imaginary bow and falls with a little yelp. I don’t mean to suggest a laundry-list dynamic; the choreography flows along, nonchalantly kicking out its surprises, while Joe Levasseur’s lighting creates its own enigmas, and James Lo’s sound design channels Wagner. In the end, symphonic furor clothes their individual side-stepping, arm-twisting, elbow-cranking pattern in curious heroism.

Oh, the apple. . . .Could Olson have been deconstructing William Tell’s adventure all along? The apple on the head, the arrow-shooting, the fall are all there—just skulking around in the dark.

Deganit Shemy’s Arena (a preview of a piece that premieres at Dance Theater Workshop in April) takes a different approach to violence from that exposed in her 2008 Iodine. That work was raw and unguarded. This one freezes action and lets you study the resulting body designs for cause and effect. The arena is a taped prizefight ring. The five women performers wear motley shorts, midriff-bearing tank tops, and kneepads. In the beginning, Leah Nelson and Savina Theodorou are locked together in combat—each balanced on one leg, both wearing stylized gas masks and breathing noisily (or was that in Jason Sebastian’s sound score?). Erika Eichelberger and Denisa Musilova repeatedly pull Robin Brown back as she approaches the other two women.

Three dancers rock into a tangled fallen pose, recover, hit it again, recover, hit it again. Eichelberger and Musilova at one point don sweat jackets and, manning out-of-sync metronomes, patrol like referees. There are double duets in which moves denoting strenuous struggle are as fastidiously shaped as Parthenon friezes of battling Amazons. All this is intriguing, but unvarying. By the time you’re starved for development, Shemy does some loosening up, but too little and a bit too late.

Comfort mentored these three choreographers, and, as you’d expect, an excerpt from her stunning 2008 An American Rendition lit up the theater in terms of theatrical savvy and political fire. She chose to show the excerpt in which a woman (Jessica Anthony) whose husband has mysteriously disappeared confronts the unyielding (and secretive) bureaucracy represented by Leslie Cuyjet, Rebecca Mehan, and Ellen Smith. Their singing, moving, talking interrogation becomes an absurd, menacing, and impenetrable pattern in which Anthony is harangued and yanked around. For those who missed seeing the evening-long An American Rendition last fall, Comfort’s searing indictment of torture, ingeniously nudging up against America’s infatuation with reality-show competitions, also had two men in the cast. I wrote at more length about it for the Voice website on October 8, and it’s one of those works that’s burned into my brain.


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).

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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