A Musical Artifact Rediscovered for Nagrin and Starer’s Indeterminate Figure

Last week we featured a guest post from summer Fellow Rachel McNellis who shared discoveries from her work with the Daniel Nagrin Collection. This week she links an unidentified score titled “Vanity” to one of Nagrin’s seminal dance works, Indeterminate Figure.


Daniel Nagrin, a renowned modern dancer with a humanist worldview, included this brief quote in the performance programs for Indeterminate Figure (1957):

Our Vanities seduce us into “ideal” images of what to be and do with our floundering selves, but realities constantly come crashing through. The human being has the amazing ability to select which reality he thinks important and to ignore what might destroy his world of illusion. The Wounds, whether heard or ignored, are real—too real. The music represents the frail dream shelters we hopefully construct for our personal safety.

Along with expressing the overarching theme for his dance, Nagrin also stresses the importance of its music. The music for Indeterminate Figure, which was composed by Robert Starer and includes both recorded music and electronic sound, remains unstudied because of a paucity of source material. The Music Division of the Library of Congress, however, houses a music manuscript that provides new insight into the creative process and underlying meaning of the work.

Both Starer and Nagrin were open about their ideas regarding the relationship between choreographer and composer, and their ideologies were quite similar. For Starer, the ideal choreographic process should begin with the choreographer, who would initially create a dance without music. The composer would then create music for this dance according to his own vision of the work. The dancer and composer would then work in dialogue. In summary, the composer-choreographer relationship must be collaborative, in which the music and dance would evolve together so that neither aspect of the work would suffer.[i]

Nagrin spoke of his relationship with Starer during the creation of Indeterminate Figure: “I never suggested what the music should be, I only let [Starer] witness the improvisation and told him what was the inner action that drove the movement. Thus all he had from me was the approximate time of the section, what I was doing/feeling, and the freedom of his own imagination.”[ii] For Nagrin, music was an essential element of the dance; it was critical that the composer and choreographer work in dialogue so as not to undermine the artistic integrity of the dance as a whole. The similar ideology regarding the relationship between composer and choreographer resulted in a masterpiece of modern dance.

Excerpt of Starer’s written notes with timing for choreography and music (ML96.S827 no. 27 Case), Music Division, Library of Congress.

The music manuscript of Indeterminate Figure unveils numerous elements about its creative process. First, a single sheet of Starer’s notes, which contains the timings for each choreographic movement and its intended musical accompaniment, illustrates the work in its earliest stages. Second, the musical score contains numerous cross-outs and additions, attesting to a collaborative process. More than one type of writing utensil was used to create the edits, evidence that the changes occurred over time .

Excerpt of first page of Starer’s music for “Indeterminate Figure” (ML96.S827 no. 27, Case), Music Division, Library of Congress.

Finally, another paper included with the musical score states: “All performance rights belong to Daniel Nagrin (unpublished) innumerable performances of tape.
No score (only these pencil sketches)”

Paper designating sole performance rights of “Peloponnesian War” to Daniel Nagrin (Ml96.S827 no. 27, Case), Music Division, Library of Congress.

While no polished score exists for Indeterminate Figure, Starer did organize his notes into individual parts for the saxophone, flute and piccolo, trumpet, and voice. These parts were most likely completed before recording the tape, as the musicians would have needed to read from the written music, at least during rehearsals. They are almost entirely clean of revisions and could be combined to create a full score. Notably, these parts are not catalogued with Starer’s notes but rather are found in the Daniel Nagrin Collection.

Excerpt of saxophone part for “Indeterminate Figure” (Daniel Nagrin Collection, Box 11, Folder 8), Music Division, Library of Congress.

The Starer manuscript also provides critical insight into the underlying meaning of Indeterminate Figure. Nagrin rarely taught his works to other dancers, and even then revealed very little about the inner drive for the creation of the work. For instance, when teaching his first solo dance, Strange Hero, to John Wiley and Tony Kramer during the 1980s, he made them sign contracts that explicitly stated: “[The dancer] will never reveal to anyone, personally, or in an interview, or in writing the inner life and the inner scenario to Strange Hero as described by the choreographer. … He will never teach the choreography of Strange Hero to anyone.”[iii] We can ascertain that Nagrin would have been equally protective of his other dances, such as Indeterminate Figure—a conclusion that is reinforced by the note that gives Nagrin sole performance rights.

On the Indeterminate Figure manuscript, Starer provides subtitles for each individual section of the work. For instance, he uses the term “vanity theme” to refer to a recurrent musical motive that is expanded upon throughout the work.

Daniel Nagrin in “Indeterminate Figure” (Daniel Nagrin Collection), Music Division, Library of Congress.

At each exposition of the theme, the dancer enters the perfect ‘reality’ of his mind, only to have it shattered by a sound from the outside world—a bomb crashing, water dripping, creaky floorboards, laughing women, phone call, and even his own heartbeat. He eventually is unable to rebuild his “frail dream shelter” and is overcome by a frenzied panic. Starer titles this affective shift “Kafka Kid,” which may be a reference to Franz Kafka, whose works emphasized alienation, anxiety, and isolation. In the end, the dancer is forced to face the realities he has sought to avoid when a bomb comes crashing down and strikes him lifeless.

The integration of music and movement clearly presents the overarching message of Indeterminate Figure: each individual is an Indeterminate Figure, having the tendency to ignore that which is displeasing to him and fabricate his own reality; he embraces a “world of illusion,” which will ultimately come crashing down.

The Daniel Nagrin Foundation has digitized a video of Daniel Nagrin dancing Indeterminate Figure.

[i] Robert Starer, “Composer and Choreographer,” The Juilliard Review Annual (1962–1963): 40–41.

[ii] Daniel Nagrin, Choreography and the Specific Image: Nineteen Essays and a Workbook (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001), 106.

[iii] Strange Hero Production Notes, Box 33, Folder 4, Daniel Nagrin Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Rachel McNellis giving a presentation to Music Division staff about the Daniel Nagrin Collection.



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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