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Daniel Nagrin - More Resources

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Daniel Nagrin (1917-2008)

by Nicole Topich

Daniel Nagrin is recognized as a seminal figure in the dance field for his dancing, choreography, teaching, publications, and other work spanning seven decades.  His innovative techniques made him a classic and led to the recognition of his distinctive style, which incorporated jazz, modern, and classical dance, and improvisation.  Because he did not fit into any one dance community or category, Nagrin was labeled the “great loner of American dance,” but some of his teachers and collaborators included Martha Graham (1894-1991), Anna Sokolow (1910-2000), and Elisabeth Anderson-Ivantzova.  Nagrin’s continuous activity and creativity culminated in a prolific and influential career, which continues to be a source of inspiration for dancers, choreographers, and the overall study of dance.  As Christena Schlundt stated in her important and detailed work about Nagrin, he “infiltrated the dance world in its most vulnerable part, its educational system” (1).

Nagrin was born in New York City in 1917 and began his dancing career in 1936.  He received his B.S. in education from the City College of New York in 1940, and in 1942 he choreographed Private Johnny Jukebox and danced in Helen Tamiris’s Liberty Song before serving in the air force during World War II.  Tamiris was an influential figure in her own right through her roles as a dancer, choreographer, teacher, and theater director.  She was especially important for increasing the acceptance and use of modern dance by other fields, including theater. Nagrin was featured in many of Tamiris’ musical theater pieces, but Tamiris was also involved in many other projects without him, including the Works Progress Administration Federal Theater Project and pieces that focused on protests, social commentary, and American patriotism.

Once Nagrin’s service in the air force ended, he choreographed Landscape with Three Figures, 1859, an anti-racist work based on the story of abolitionist John Brown.  He began dancing on Broadway under Tamiris’ choreographic direction in such works as Up In Central Park and Annie Get Your Gun, and the two were married in 1946.  He also danced in Tamiris’ Inside U.S.A. and Gower Champion’s Broadway musical Lend an Ear before beginning his own choreographic career with Spanish Dance, Man of Action, and Strange Hero in 1948.  Spanish Dance and Strange Hero were two of his best-known solo pieces and have been frequently performed by other dancers, such as Shane O’Hara and the José Limón Dance Company (Dunning 2009).  Other Helen Tamiris choreographic works he appeared in were Touch and Go, Bless You All, and Plain and Fancy between 1949 and 1955. During this time, he also focused on his own choreography with such works as The Ballad of John Henry, Faces with Walt Whitman, His Majesty O’Keefe, Man Dancing, Tom O’Bedlam, and Dance In The Sun, which was made into a 1953 film of the same name.  

In 1955, Nagrin received Broadway’s Donaldson Award “for all that is finest in theatrical achievement” in recognition of his work in Tamiris’ Plain and Fancy. 1957 and 1958 were especially busy years for Nagrin, during which he choreographed Indeterminate Figure, Progress, Volpone, Jazz: Three Ways, Three Happy Men, The Boss Man and the Snake Lady, With My Eye and With My Hand, A Dancer Prepares, and For a Young Person.  The Tamiris-Nagrin company was formed in 1960, the year that he also choreographed An Entertainment and An American Journey.  After forming the company, Nagrin choreographed Two Improvisations, The Man Who Did Not Care, The Emperor Jones, Path, Not Me But Him, In the Dusk, A Gratitude, In Defense of the City, and Why Not, but Nagrin focused on his solo career after his separation in 1963 from Tamiris and her death in 1966.  

Nagrin taught at SUNY Brockport from 1967 to 1971, during which time he choreographed one of his most well-known pieces, The Peloponnesian War, which protested the Vietnam War.  The Workgroup, a cross-disciplinary improvisational dance company, was also formed at this time, and lasted from 1969 to 1973.  The early 1970s was also a period of active choreography for Nagrin, producing such works as The Image, Duet, The Ritual, Rondo, Mary Anne’s Dance, Rituals of Power, Signs of the Times, Fragment: Rondo I and II, Ritual for Two, Ritual for Eight, Quiet Dance I, II, Wounded Knee, Sea Anemone Suite, Hello-Farewell-Hello, Steps, Jazz Changes, The Edge is Also a Center, Nineteen Upbeats, and Sweet Woman.  He continued to create new works throughout the 1970s, including the piece Jacaranda and a monologue based on Albert Camus’ The Fall.

In 1982, Nagrin became a professor of dance at Arizona State University, where he became a professor emeritus in 1992.  Nagrin was also actively documenting his career during this time period through several books that he wrote or edited and his focus on filming performances for permanence.  He received many awards and honors in this period, including a honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from SUNY Brockport in 1991, the Balasaraswati / Joy Ann Dewey Beineke Chair for Distinguished Teaching at the American Dance Festival in 1992, and the Master Teacher / Mentor Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1993.  Nagrin also continued to choreograph in the last decade of his life, creating such pieces as Apartment 18C and Croissant.  He received an Honorary Doctor of Arts Degree from CalArts in 2004 and was honored in France with a year-long festival entitled “Dances of Resistance” in 2007. He died in Tempe, AZ on December 29, 2008 at the age of 91.

 

References

Information in this essay is primarily drawn from the Daniel Nagrin Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Dunning, Jennifer.  “Daniel Nagrin Dies at 91; Modern Dance and Choreographer.”  New York Times, 2 January 2009.

Gruen, John. People Who Dance: 22 Dancers Tell their Own Stories. Pennington, NJ:  Dance Horizons Books, 1988.

Schlundt, Christena.  Daniel Nagrin: A Chronicle of His Professional Career.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Tamiris, Helen, 1905-1966. Helen Tamiris Collection, (S) *MGZMC-Res. 24, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.


 

Nicole Topich is a project archivist at Harvard University and is completing an online Master’s in Library and Information Science through the University of Pittsburgh. Her undergraduate degree from Swarthmore College included a major in history and a minor in peace and conflict studies. She has worked at eight archives and two libraries and is interested in several different fields of study, including performing arts and archives.

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Books by Nagrin
How to Dance Forever: Surviving Against the Odds. 1988.
Dance and the Specific Image: Improvisation. 1994.
Six Questions : Acting Technique for Dance Performance. 1997.
Choreography and the Specific Image: Nineteen Essays and a Workbook. 2001.

Books and Articles about Nagrin
Fortney, Alan Jon. “Daniel Nagrin, The Peloponnesian War."  Dance Magazine. 43:1, January 1969, p. 85.

Gitelman, Claudia, and Barbara Palfy. On Stage Alone: Soloists and the Modern Dance Canon.

Gainesville: University of Florida, 2012.
Loney, Glenn Meredith.  “Daniel Nagrin's Magnet: The Peloponnesian War.”   Dance Magazine.  44:8, Aug 1970, pp. 68-71.

Roses-Thema, Cynthia.  Interview with Daniel Nagrin.   Journal for the Anthropological Studies of Human Movement, 12:3, Spring 2003, pp. 114 – 119.

Schlundt, Christena.  Daniel Nagrin: A Chronicle of His Professional Career.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

---.  Daniel Nagrin: A Sketch for a Dance Portrait. Proceedings, Society of Dance History Scholars, 1983, pp. 253-257.

---. Tamiris:  A Chronicle of Her Dance Career 1927-1965. New York:  The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, 1972.   

Siegel, Marcia B. (ed).  Dancers' Notes.  Daniel Nagrin:  “War” Diary.  New York, Dance Perspectives Foundation, 1969, pp. 18-23.

Tamiris, Helen. Tamiris in Her Own Voice: Draft of an Autobiography [originally written in 1928 and 1951].  [Transcribed, edited, and annotated by Daniel Nagrin.]  Studies in Dance History. 1:1, Fall/Winter 1989, pp. 1-64.

Wawrejko, Diane (2007) Getting to the Core of X: An Analysis of the Choreographic Methods of Daniel Nagrin Doctoral thesis, University of Surrey.

Online Resources

Daniel’s Legacy project through the Daniel Nagrin Theatre, Film, and Dance Foundation: http://www.nagrin.com/frames.htm

Arizona State University Institute for Studies in the Arts Documentation Project: http://ame2.asu.edu/projects/nagrin/

Photograph of Daniel Nagrin’s Not Me But Him (1965): http://myloc.gov/Exhibitions/politicsand-dance/turmoil/ExhibitObjects/NagrinNotMeButHim.aspx

Sheet music from Landscape with Three Figures: http://myloc.gov/Exhibitions/politics-anddance/turmoil/ExhibitObjects/LandscapeWithThreeFigures.aspx

Daniel Nagrin’s Obituary in The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/03/arts/dance/03nagrin.html?adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1355153 930-gpao/EiAH/0N8YFKt2s9FA&_r=0

Moving Images

Over 1,000 moving image and sound recordings from Daniel Nagrin are at the Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division in Culpeper, Virginia, with dates ranging from 1948 to 2001.

Arizona State University Institute for Studies in the Arts Documentation Project: http://ame2.asu.edu/projects/nagrin/works.html

Four Films Videotape. Performed by Daniel Nagrin, 1979.

Jazz and Me: Six Jazz Dances and a Lecture, 1991.

Nagrin Videotape Library Sampler. Performed by Daniel Nagrin, 1985.

Poems Off the Wall. Tempe, AZ: The Daniel Nagrin Theatre, Film, and Dance Foundation. Performed by Daniel Nagrin, produced 2004.

Solos, 1948-1967. Performed by Daniel Nagrin, 1967.

Spring ’65 Concert. Tempe, AZ: The Daniel Nagrin Theatre, Film, and Dance Foundation. Performed by Daniel Nagrin, produced 2004.

Strange Hero from Six Jazz Dances and a Lecture videotape. Performed by Daniel Nagrin, 2004.

Two Works by The Workgroup. Tempe, AZ: The Daniel Nagrin Theatre, Film, and Dance Foundation, produced 2004. 

Archives

Collection of Material about Daniel Nagrin (Collection 1335). Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles. http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/kt967nc9d7/

Daniel Nagrin Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Daniel Nagrin Papers, (S)*MGZMD 212, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Gruen, John. Interview with Daniel Nagrin. One transcript, 23 leaves. New York Public Library: Jerome Robbins Dance Collection, 1975.

Newman, Barbara. Interview with Daniel Nagrin. One transcript, 14 leaves. New York Public Library: Daniel Nagrin Collection, 1975.

Tamiris, Helen, 1905-1966. Helen Tamiris Collection, (S) *MGZMC-Res. 24, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.