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‘Remembering Daniel Nagrin’ at Susan Hess Modern DanceBY: Merilyn Jackson 06.01.2009
No other dancer commanded all the characteristics of the soloist Daniel Nagrin, who died last December at 91. But two of his protégés, Shane O’Hara and Donald Laney, gave an astonishing little concert in tribute to their incomparable mentor.
“Remembering Daniel Nagrin.” Shane O’Hara and Donald Laney. May 30, 2009 at Susan Hess Modern Dance Studio, 2030 Sansom St. www.hessdance.org. June 8, 2009 at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, 131 E. Tenth St., New York. (212) 674-8112 or www.danspaceproject.org.
The man who danced (almost) foreverMERILYN JACKSON
Every now and then, a dancer enters our atmosphere like a comet, but instead of crashing, hovers among us for a time and then zooms off to the ether once again. Daniel Nagrin, who died last December at the age of 91, was one such heavenly body.
Because he was mainly a soloist, Nagrin wasn’t as well known to the general public as contemporary choreographers like Martha Graham or Merce Cunningham. He didn’t make dance for large companies, as they did with their own undeniable stamp. But as a dancer and choreographer, Nagrin stood shoulder to shoulder with them as well as with Mikhail Baryshnikov or Jerome Robbins.
Although Nagrin came to dance late— at 20— his dances had the cut of modernity, the technique of a classicist and the cheek and noir of jazz dance. Because no other dancer commanded all of these characteristics, no one else danced like he did, whether on Broadway or in concert.
I knew Nagrin (though not well enough to call him Danny) in Phoenix when I was writing for the Arizona Republic. After one of my reviews in 1997, he sent me his book, The Six Questions. In his enclosed note he said he was most impressed by a comment I made about watching the student dancers grow in expressiveness.
“We are witnessing a physical virtuosity that is far beyond anything seen in my performing time,” he wrote, “but at a cost of, as you put it, ‘expressiveness’.”
Tough act to follow
Nagrin’s rough-hewn face, dark eyes, straight (but not stiff) back, expressive hands, balletic feet and charged movement rendered him an impossible act to follow, unless you studied with him over time as you would with a butoh master— as did Shane O’Hara, who as artistic director of the Nagrin Foundation is now charged with all settings of Nagrin’s historic solos.
O’Hara and Donald Laney gave an astonishing little concert at Susan Hess Modern Dance Studio Saturday night in tribute to the incomparable dancer who had been their friend and mentor.
Nagrin taught Laney his famous Spanish Dance in his Tempe, Ariz., home in 2008. Although Nagrin retired from Arizona State University’s dance department, he still taught there until a year before his death. In effect he was just following his own teachings: His fourth book, in 1988, was titled, How to Dance Forever: Surviving Against the Odds.
Neither Laney nor O’Hara is Nagrin’s body type. Laney is taller and more muscular; O’Hara is shorter and more compact. Each brought certain of Nagrin’s dance theories into their solos, yet each made them his own.
The thug as hero
Following a showing of a 1984 film of a peripatetic lecture Nagrin gave at Hess’s studio (she had studied with him), O’Hara gave us Nagrin’s 1948 Strange Hero, danced to the music of Stan Kenton and Pete Rugolo. O’Hara’s hero, a cool and murderously elegant street thug, virtually made love to the cigarette held loosely between his lips. After shooting or stabbing unseen victims with his pointed finger, he’d bend his head back and, with chilling enjoyment, take a long drag on his cigarette and then slowly remove it. Just watching O’Hara’s hand and fingers arriving finally on its filter made me shiver with anticipation.
Laney, who is co-artistic director of the West Virginia Dance Company, travels that state with an educational program that features Spanish Dance (also 1948.) The intense Spanish-flavored music was composed by Genevieve Pitot (a prolific Broadway dance composer whose career spanned 50 years.) I can imagine schoolchildren squirming as they watch Laney’s black clad body in profile, splayed hands resting wrists to his hips for several moments in stillness. That stillness must frighten the kiddies into settling down, as first his little fingers, followed in turn by the rest, curve inwards to his palms until his thumb closes over them in a fist.
This fist starts the dance, then opens to point at the air before the dancer– an image as powerful as Moses parting the seas. Laney’s perfectly pointed bare foot feels the air for some foothold. Finding none there, he carefully claws it on the floor. His convulsing torso isn’t Martha Graham’s melodrama; it’s Nagrin’s paroxysm of pure passion. It starts in the groin and explodes back and up toward the pelvis.
With Wordgame, A Cartoon (1968), O’Hara takes over again. He flings open his chest, matching the sound of an organ crashing with all stops open. (Nagrin compiled the Spike Jones/Looney Tunes-style tape collage). In a series of dance phrases, O’Hara genuflects, freezes like a sneak thief, plays a pinball machine, waves to the back of the stage to cover scratching his ass, and then repeats these actions over again, changing the direction. It’s a tour de force like you might have seen back then on a TV variety show like Ed Sullivan or Ernie Kovacs. Hilarious, but dark and a little scary.
O’Hara introduced the next piece from 1957 with the same dialogue Nagrin always used: “By the very nature of a soloist’s work, he/she is alone in the studio. But for me it is never empty....and sometimes it’s crowded”. This is a piece about someone, and so it is called Someone.”
The room becomes palpable
In this totally pre-post-modern dance, O’Hara tries a move, stops before he finishes, redirects it, walks the space trying to find the movement phrase that surely is there and, finding it, stays in it. Then he steps back, like a painter seeing if it works. You feel the room around him become alive, palpable.
He listens to the music for the next phrase, then mimes the properties of the space, pulling down imaginary window shades. Then he’s down on the floor— no, mustn’t stay on the floor— pulls up, looks to the walls for inspiration, but again he’s down, kneeling, hands in lap. He gives in to the room. He is floored.
As superb a reading as O’Hara and Laney gave, the best part of the evening was seeing an old 1958 tape of Nagrin dancing Jazz Three Ways to Jimmy Yancey’s boogie piano. Without mugging or overdoing, Nagrin expressed sexiness, indifference, intelligence, and humor. Man, that Nagrin was some cool cat.
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