I just heard that one of my heroes, Daniel Nagrin, passed away on December 29.
Oh, there are just too many reasons to admire him. Really, read his bio. For seven decades he did it all: dance, choreograph, teach and write. When I first discovered his book, How to Dance Forever, his unflinching insights profoundly changed my approach to class, choreography, and my career.
Although he lead a choreography workshop at the American Dance Festival when I attended in 1992, it filled before I could enroll. However, whenever I had the opportunity, I would sneak into the balcony around that studio and listen in to his concise critiques.
Eleven years later, I finally found a chance to participate in one of his Master Classes on Improvisation at Summer Stages Dance in Concord, MA. It is difficult to describe the formidable intensity of being in a room with him. Dubbed "the great loner of American dance." by Dance Magazine, his sparse utterances seemed to have their own unique gravitational pull. Being his student was slightly intimidating and yet wonderfully exhilarating. His New York Times obituary aptly described him as "craggily innovative", and that phrase captures a great deal of his mysterious charisma.
You can imagine my surprise when he approached me after class to cryptically remark that he "admired my courage." I was too stunned to ask exactly what he meant before he left but it is a moment that I refer back to whenever I need to cut through the noise of artistic doubt.
When he returned to Summer Stages Dance again in 2006, he was gracious enough to let me interview him for about an hour on the arc of his career and his thoughts on choreographing. Below is a brief segment from that conversation that seems particularly pertinent today:
KK: How did you get started choreographing?
DN: How did I discover it?
DN: Well, I went to concerts and I knew if you were to be respected you had to make your own dances. In early modern dance, the dancers had less respect than the choreographers.
kK: Interesting...very interesting. And when you began did you just go into a studio and start moving or did you study it? How did you start the process of it?
DN: I never studied choreography. The closest I came to studying choreography were the years I spent working with Helen Tamiris.
DN: She was my adviser in my own work and she conducted classes which I never attended. We spoke a lot. I never discovered a method. Well, I did and i didn't. I saw how she worked and it made a lot of sense to me and I always did it.
kK: And when you began choreographing, did you mostly choreograph for yourself or did you set work on other people.
DN: [points to himself]
kK: When you started did you work with mirrors? I know in class that we cover the mirrors.
DN: I have always hated the mirror.
kK: [laughes with a sense of recognition]
DN: Whenever I looked in the mirror I was shocked. I wasn't entranced with what I saw. I wasn't entranced when i saw myself dance and I wasn't entranced with my face. Something about it always put me off. I always felt much better without looking. So I didn't look.
kK: It is curious that you didn't like the way you looked dancing, and yet you would choose to be the medium for your choreography.
DN: It never occurred to me that was wrong if it didn't look good. In the choreography that I did and that I taught, the important thing was what you did on stage not what you looked like.
Thanks for inspiring so many of us!
Daniel Nagrin 1917 - 2008