Daniel Nagrin

By MARCIA B. SIEGEL  |  January 12, 2009

STRANGE HERO: In memorable solos Nagrin portrayed tough, wary, man-in-the-street characters.
Daniel Nagrin was one of the last surviving stars of modern dance's second generation. He studied with all the greats: Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Anna Sokolow, Hanya Holm, and his first wife, Helen Tamiris. By the time he died, on 29 December in Tempe, Arizona, he'd reinvented himself several times, as a dancer/choreographer, company leader, writer, and master teacher.

Born in New York City, Nagrin started his career in the 1940s, straddling modern dance and Broadway. He was featured in several shows choreographed by Tamiris, among them Annie Get Your Gun and Up in Central Park, and together they formed a concert-dance company that gave "serious" performances in between their commercial projects. It was unusual at the time for modern dancers to invest their efforts in the popular stage, but Nagrin was open to opportunities wherever they lay.

In the 1940s and '50s, along with contemporaries like Gene Kelly and Josû Limón, Nagrin fought against the stigmatized image of male dancing. In memorable solos he portrayed tough, wary, man-in-the-street characters — Strange Hero, Man of Action, Indeterminate Figure. He deployed a high-powered technique and performing style to create these macho types who betrayed their vulnerabilities. For years he toured the country with solo programs; that culminated in the complex, evening-length performance piece The Peloponnesian War (1968).

Through Tamiris, Nagrin had studied acting and taught movement for actors. By the time the countercultural '60s arrived, he was looking for a dance analogue to the work of theater directors like Joe Chaikin and Jerzy Grotowski. He wanted to open the way for personal expressiveness, to knock down the wall, as he said, between the act of dancing and the work of acting.

Divorced from Tamiris in 1964, Nagrin re-established himself in a SoHo loft and began working on structured improvisation techniques for dancers. The Workgroup (1969–1974) announced its intention to "explore the possibilities of interactive improvisation and to develop the forms and skills to perform improvisation for the concertgoing audience." The books that came out of those years, How To Dance Forever (1988), Dance and the Specific Image (1994), The Six Questions (1997), and Choreography and the Specific Image (2001), are filled with exercises, games, and structures for exploring the performance process, and they're still gold mines of material for movement work.

When the Workgroup disbanded, Nagrin returned to solo performing, gradually adapting the intensive workshop process for short-term teaching situations as he toured. He never relinquished the "expectation of deep personal involvement" from the participants.

Like most independent dancers, Daniel Nagrin was an accomplished teacher. In 1982 he joined the dance faculty of Arizona State University, from which he retired as an emeritus professor in 1992. He continued to be in demand as a guest teacher. His wife, artist and illustrator Phyllis Steele Nagrin, accompanied his latter-day travels with sketchpad in hand.

In 2004 and 2006 he taught awestruck students at Concord Academy Summer Stages. According to Summer Stages directors Amy Spencer and Richard Colton: "All who met him, or saw him dance, are closer to understanding the essence of the art. He lived with incredible discipline yet with passion. This was evident in every phrase he danced, every class he taught, every improvisation he led. His ceaseless creative flame — which could, we all know, on occasion burn — lit a path for dancers and actors to become more deeply themselves, to become artists. He will always be just over our shoulder: a giant, a source of Promethean energy."

1  |  2  |   next >
Related: Steps . . . and more steps, Year in Dance: Reusable histories & durable trends, Drama manqué, More more >
  Topics: Dance , Entertainment, Dance, Performing Arts,  More more >
| More

Most Popular
Share this entry with Delicious
    Erik Satie called his vocal work Socrate a "symphonic drama," though it's anything but dramatic in a theatrical sense — or symphonic, either.
  •   JOFFREY BALLET GETS ITS DUE  |  May 08, 2012
    New York has two great ballet companies, New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater. Any other ballet troupe that wants to put down roots there has to develop a personality that's distinct from those two.
  •   THE BOSTON BALLET’S DON QUIXOTE  |  May 01, 2012
    In the long string of ballet productions extracted from Miguel de Cervantes's novel Don Quixote, the delusional Don has become a minor character, charging into situations where he shouldn't go and causing trouble instead of good works.
    When Trey McIntyre found a base for his infant company in Boise, Idaho, four years ago, eyebrows lifted in the dance world.
  •   BALLET HISPANICO FALLS SHORT  |  March 13, 2012
    All three dances presented by Ballet Hispanico at the Cutler Majestic last weekend depended heavily on costume effects to convey their messages.

 See all articles by: MARCIA B. SIEGEL