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Dance and the Specific Image

Dance and the Specific Image: Improvisation

Copyright Date: 1994
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Dance and the Specific Image
    Book Description:

    After an extraordinary career in dance - as a performer, choreographer, and teacher - Daniel Nagrin has now written an extraordinary book. In it he explores the roots of his aesthetic philosophy, influenced by Stanislavski, Helen Tamiris, Joseph Chaikin and the Open Theatre, and his work on and off Broadway as an actor and dancer.Dance and the Specific Image includes over one hundred improvisational structures that Nagrin created with his new company, the Workgroup, and has taught in dance classes and workshops all over the United States. Designed primarily for dancers, many can be adapted for actors and even musicians.In the 1960s, at a time when many modern dancers were working with movement as abstraction, Nagrin turned instead toward movement as metaphor. His passionate belief that dance must speak of people led him to found the Workgroup, a small company of dancers who, in the early 1970s, devoted themselves to the practice and performance of improvisation.Nagrin invites the reader into the mind of a dancer totally absorbed in his art, one who writes with wisdom and authority about what it means to be an artist.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7888-6
    Subjects: Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xiv)

    For many if not most dancers, and certainly for myself, improvisation has always been there from the very beginning, but never as a central focus. It was a delight, a diversion and a tool for choreography. In the late sixties, my career took an unexpected turn. A brief contact with the Open Theatre opened my eyes to a breathtakingly different way of working in the theatre and in art. Improvisation was the source from which all else flowed. The pursuit of this new way led to the formation of a dance company, the Workgroup.

    The seeds of the Workgroup were...

  2. Part I: History and Theory

    • 1 Before the Workgroup
      (pp. 3-10)

      Prior to the time of the Workgroup, everything I performed was choreographed,¹ but almost everything choreographed was pursued and found through improvisation. Improvisation was always there as a tool. When choreographing, I would improvise until something “felt right” and then try to remember and pin down what that was.

      My earliest introduction to dance was by way of improvisation. As a high school student, sitting still for the hours spent doing homework was near impossible. Among my restless diversions was practicing a poorly learned box step for the foxtrot. Social dancing was the passport to meeting girls, and though I...

    • 2 The Open Theatre, 1969
      (pp. 11-14)

      In the unplanned events that change our lives, a theatre director, Jacques Levy, moved into my loft building on Bleecker Street. At the time, he was co-directing the Open Theatre with its founder, Joseph Chaikin. This was one of the most adventurous theatre companies in New York City, and an invitation in 1969 from Levy to give them some movement classes excited me. What happened proved seminal. It was while teaching members of the Open Theatre that I experienced a few improvisation exercises that made unexpected demands upon me as a performer. In time, I came to realize that aesthetically...

    • 3 On the Road, 1969–1970
      (pp. 15-34)

      Although the impact of the Open Theatre was considerable, I did not spend much time with them. I had premieredThe Peloponnesian War, an evening-length work, in December 1968, and many bookings were coming in. Engagements and tours took me out of New York so frequently that for a while I lost my connection with the group. However, in three engagements on the road, I managed to pause long enough to play a bit with the five Open Theatre exercises—EGAS—described in chapter 2: Solo Singer, Solo Dancer, The Chord, The Mirror, and The Conductor.¹ To my amazement, they...

    • 4 The Workgroup Workshop, 1969
      (pp. 35-48)

      The first step had been taken with the meeting on December 13; the next was a workshop open to all who wished to attend—the Workgroup Workshop. It would meet every Saturday for an hour-and-a-half technique class, lunch (I always leave time for lunch), and three to four hours of improvisation. One dollar charge per week for expenses. We met in a cavernous Soho loft on Broadway which I rented from Meredith Monk. It was L-shaped, over one hundred feet long, a ceiling at least twenty feet high and badly lit. There was something about the too much space, the...

    • 5 The Precursor Workgroup, 1969
      (pp. 49-67)

      Came the fall of 1970, it was apparent that a weekly workshop open to all who wished to participate was no longer to the point. The work ahead needed a group of first-rate dancers who could build a solid body of experience in improvisation by working together several times a week. We held auditions. Who were we? A rare group, not a single woman but rather four men: Lee Connor, Charles Hayward, Clyde Morgan and I. During the spring of 1970, they had been consistent in attendance, inspired in improvisation and solid dancers. Lee was the rawest, but he was...

    • 6 The First Workgroup, 1971–1972
      (pp. 68-100)

      The first act was to find a space—our own space. Luck. A painter advertised an 82-by-36-foot loft, without asking for any key money! He thought he had found the perfect studio for his needs until he learned it was under the thundering heels of Paul Taylor’s powerhouse company. He just wanted out of his lease.

      The ceiling was twelve and a half feet high but the floor was a horror. This being 1970 and vinyl not the easy solution it is today, we patched and sanded the worn, gouged tongue-and-groove boards, and in a couple of weeks we had...

    • 7 The Second Workgroup, 1972–1973
      (pp. 101-114)

      As the seasons go round in their perennial dance, one day the leaves fall and so do dance companies go through the falling away of dancers. New men and women come to fill the space, the time and the dance, each with their distinctive color, heft, terrors and fountain of energy. The company changes and the work changes, nowhere more than in a group that performs improvisation. The newcomers were Jack Deneault, William DeTurk, Donna Joseph and Lisa Nelson. We added a new category, associates. They participated in all the studio “research” but rarely in performances: Jana Fleder (now Haimson),...

    • 8 The Final Workgroup, 1973–1974
      (pp. 115-124)

      From the end of the 1972 summer, in Johnson, Vermont, to the beginning of the summer of 1973, when we returned to Vermont, just two new works entered our performing repertoire. Yet the notes reveal a prolific time of experiment. There were over a dozen new shapes of improvisation, some touched upon briefly and some examined in depth. Here they are, in no particular order.

      When dancers work with each other day after day, inevitably they notice each other’s style—the strong points and the limitations. I Dare You is all about limitations. It only succeeds with a group that...

    • 9 On the Road Again, 1974–
      (pp. 125-142)

      Traveling back and forth across the country, I was hauling a trunk full of EGAS along with the equipment for my new solo program—costumes, tapes and props. Touring a concert program is exciting; new people, new stages, new cities and towns, each with their own colors, tastes and tensions, all charged and challenged me. Best of all, I was constantly meeting people who had been expecting and getting ready for my visit for months, sometimes a year. Their energy and openness electrified every exchange of ideas and movements. I was continually receiving as well as giving.

      Wherever possible, then...

    • 10 Improvising Jazz, 1990
      (pp. 143-154)

      The summer of 1990 presented a window to an opportunity I had had only once before: a two-week jazz workshop. This was to be at Stanford University; the other had been at the University of Oregon in Eugene in 1962. That earlier one was a turning point in how I taught jazz: it focused on clearly and precisely structured jazz dance styles. The Stanford workshop centered on the creative use of jazz, and specifically in improvisation. A little history is needed to explain my excitement with this workshop, my experience with jazz, and what I mean byjazz.

      As noted...

  3. Part II: Practice

    • 11 Teaching, Directing, and Performing Improvisation
      (pp. 157-176)

      Scattered throughout the preceding chapters are various ground rules for dancers, teachers and directors who are working with improvisation either in the studio or for public performance. The following paragraphs summarize and expand those ground rules. At the end is a suggested sequence of EGAS for learning and teaching the improvisations of the Workgroup. This progression allows the inner logic of the way of the Workgroup to appear clearer to the students and dancers working their way through the improvisations.

      The director/teacher has enormous power, particularly in channeling the minds of the dancers/students toward expected results. I myself am always...

    • 12 Playing Areas, Lights and Costumes
      (pp. 177-182)

      In all improvisation work, except for public performances, I choose subdued light. It is easier to maintain concentration, the dancers are less aware of those dancers with whom they are not involved, and it opens the door to mystery—and mystery is our business.

      I fell upon our performance style lighting by accident. For the very first performance of the Workgroup in our studio at 550 Broadway, I was setting the lights, which were all 150-watt reflector floods clamped illegally to the pipes of the sprinkler system. They were perfect for our space, for the ceiling was only twelve and...

    • 13 Music, Musicians and Improvisation
      (pp. 183-190)

      What needs music and what does not? Your taste and style will answer that. For every improvisation session, whether for myself alone or for a group, I always have at hand a fistful of tapes which mayor may not be used. In the earliest workshops, before the company was formed, I regularly invited one or more musicians to attend, not as accompanists but as participants. I can recall Erik Salzman, Rhys Chatham, Michael Sahl, Charlemagne Palestine among others. For a while, a young percussionist, William Steinberg, was literally a paid member of the company. A few who visited the workshops...

  4. Appendix A. Helen Tamiris
    (pp. 193-194)
  5. Appendix C. Hello Farewell Hello
    (pp. 205-214)
  6. Sequential Index of EGAS
    (pp. 215-216)
  7. Alphabetical Index of EGAS
    (pp. 217-218)