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May 22: The “Great Loner” of American Dance

lawrencebush
May 31, 2013

nagrin572_strangeDaniel Nagrin, a choreographer and dancer best known for his powerful, gestural solo dances, was born in New York City on this date in 1917. Nagrin debuted with Anna Sokolow, then partnered with Helen Tamiris, fifteen years his elder, a very political modern dancer who had been the main choreographer of the Dance Project, a wing of the Federal Theater Project, during the Depression. Nagrin married Tamaris in 1946, and together they created eighteen Broadway musicals and a modern dance company before her death in 1966. He presented his first full solo program in 1957, at age 40, and in 1970 formed the Workgroup, an influential improvisational ensemble. Nagrin added mixed-media elements to modern dance well before this became an avant-garde standard, and "privileged content rather than form" in a time when McCarthyism and Cold War fears had led to abstraction and formalism in the arts, according to Diane Wawrejko in her doctoral thesis on Nagrin. Anna Kisselgoff wrote in the New York Times that "no specific technique springs to mind, no school or tradition provides a ready context” when viewing Nagrin's work, and Dance magazine called him "the great loner of American dance." Among his four books were How to Dance Forever: Surviving Against the Odds. To see a brief excerpt from one of his best-known solos, "Strange Hero," look below.

"Critics demeaned, marginalised, and dismissed ethnic dance artists from Jewish, African-American, and Hispanic/Latino backgrounds as less pure or important than the white, formalist American modern dancers. Thus, the marginalisations of Nagrin and Tamiris are plausible and complex due to their treatment of minority and popular cultural themes, jazz, and work on Broadway. By the late 1940s, second and third generation modern dance artists were marginalized as the American Dance Festival and Juilliard focused on Graham and José Limón." —Diane Wawrejko