Severed Limbs and Other Findings in the Daniel Nagrin Collection

The following is a guest post from Rachel McNellis, one of the Music Division’s summer Fellows. Dance Archivist Libby Smigel introduces her.

I have been delighted to have two Case Western Reserve University Fellows this summer, and am pleased to have Rachel McNellis share her experience working with the legacy materials of choreographer Daniel Nagrin. Although Nagrin’s book on improvisation and creative process is often assigned by dance department faculty, his choreographic works – through Nagrin’s own wishes – are not among current repertory. Rachel’s expertise in material culture, visual arts, and musicology has significantly enhanced the identification of materials and their interrelationships. In the coming year, thanks to Rachel’s efforts, you’ll be able to find additional digital resources from the collection on the Library of Congress and the Daniel Nagrin Theatre, Film & Dance Foundation websites, and I expect that Rachel will be sharing more of her reflections and discoveries in scholarly forums.

Rachel McNellis, posing in front of a photograph of Nagrin.

Several weeks ago, I entered the archives in the Performing Arts Reading Room and came across several unlabeled boxes in the Daniel Nagrin Collection. Upon opening the first box, I was confronted with a very realistic, plastic-covered wooden severed arm—quite creepy, to say the least. I opened the next box and was greeted with an intriguing mask meant to resemble the face of an African American. I returned to my desk with thirty boxes of papers and photographs as well as the severed arm, with the intention of discovering the significance of both objects.

Photograph of Nagrin with Mask. Daniel Nagrin Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Daniel Nagrin (1917–2009) was an American modern dancer who studied under prominent artists including Martha Graham, Anna Sokolow, and his wife Helen Tamiris. Between 1945 and 1956, he appeared in numerous Broadway productions and was awarded the Donaldson Award for Best Male Dancer in 1955 for his performance in Plain and Fancy. Despite these successes, Nagrin departed Broadway because he was disenchanted with its emphasis on commercialism. For Nagrin, dance was not mere entertainment, but rather a vital form of art that could comment on current events and inspire social change. When examined in their original performative contexts, the mask and the arm are potent reminders of the humanism that is fundamental to Nagrin’s work.

In Not Me, But Him, which premiered in 1965, Nagrin uses the mask to facilitate the portrayal of an African American’s experience during a time of racism and segregation. Nagrin starts the dance by wearing the mask (designed by Ralph Lee), but concludes the work by holding it up to his face as if it were a mirror image of himself. The soundtrack is a collage that combines African American spirituals with jazz, which Nagrin viewed as the ideal musical representation of American popular culture. The juxtapositions created by Nagrin’s use of dance, music, and the mask create a work that challenges the racial divide and underlying assumptions about inequality.

 

Photograph of Nagrin with Gun. Daniel Nagrin Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, Daniel Nagrin premiered his solo dance-theater collage The Peloponnesian War. Audible and visual war imagery pervades this work. A recording of Thucydides’s The Peloponnesian War narrated by actor Frank Langella runs continuously in the background. The unconventional text emphasizes the perpetuity of war since antiquity and the necessity of ceasing its brutal cycle. A second tape, created in collaboration with composer Eric Salzman, simultaneously plays the musical soundtrack. The first music heard is the Star Spangled Banner, played as a collage in six different keys, which harmonically undermines the fundamental proclamation of American patriotism. The visual pronouncements against war are even more obvious, such as the moment that Nagrin discovers the aforementioned arm wrapped in newspaper. Rather than disgusted or horrified at this representation of carnage, he is fascinated: he examines the arm carefully, shakes its hand, arm wrestles with it, and kicks it offstage. The arm represents not only the tragedy of war but also what Nagrin sees as the desensitized and apathetic mindset of American society. He later fires a blank into the audience in an attempt to awaken them from their passive indifference. As a collective whole, The Peloponnesian War calls for social consciousness during a time of political and wartime controversy.

Despite his monumental role in advancing the role of dance in contemporary society, Nagrin has received relatively little scholarly attention beyond Christena L. Schlundt’s monograph titled Daniel Nagrin: A Chronicle of His Professional Career (University of California Press, 1997). The Daniel Nagrin Collection includes more than 22,000 items and offers new opportunities for research. Its contents, dating from the 1920s through the 2000s, include the mask and arm; holographs and published musical scores; notes on choreography, dance technique, and production elements; hundreds of photos; programming and promotion materials; correspondence; and transcripts from interviews. The Moving Image Research Center and Recorded Sound Research Center at the Library have digitized video and audio footage from Nagrin’s original performances. When creating his works, Nagrin served as his own choreographer, set designer, costume designer, and lighting director. He also worked in close collaboration with composers to create music appropriate for his dances. The Daniel Nagrin Collection is therefore ideal for interdisciplinary study.

My hope is that more researchers will use this collection and revive scholarship on this significant figure in modern dance. Such scholarly endeavors will provide insight into not only Nagrin’s creative process and personal philosophy of dance, but also the way in which dance served as a form of social and political commentary throughout the twentieth century. Moreover, if you need an extra hand with your work in this collection, Daniel Nagrin would be happy to lend you his.

 

 

Rachel McNellis is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at Case Western Reserve University. Her research interests include associations between music and visual art during the later Middle Ages, as well as music and wartime politics during the twentieth century. She has published in the field of art history and has forthcoming publications in the fields of musicology and Holocaust studies.

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