Seeing Daniel Nagrin perform at the University of Maryland Friday night, where he was a guest artist with the local Improvisations Unlimited troupe, was a poignant reminder of that era in modern dance before an artist's inner conviction and humanistic urges were replaced by other values as primary concerns.
Nagrin has always gone his own way. He has developed his own highly idiosyncratic movement vocabulary, compounded from ingredients of mime, jazz and traditional modern dance but seasoned with his very personal, flinty, ironic, tragi-comic dance sensibility. He doesn't always hit the nail on the head, but you never fail to feel the force of his hammer stroke. Though he has no "messages" to purvey, there's something of the polemicist about him, and he sweeps you up in his fervor.
The most exciting of his solos were the first and last: a swift, short, bullet-hard series of incipient actions, with imagery drawn from golf, boxing, archery and other sports, called "19 Upbeats" (1965); and a virtuoso excerpt from his "The Peloponnesian War" (1968) titled "Word Game, a Cartoon," in which stereotyped characters suggested by Eric Salzman's tape collage -- a political orator, an academic lecturer, a sci-fi robot and others -- are matched and then mismatched with Nagrin's sharp movement portraiture. These two were the clearest descendants from the solo tradition Charles Weidman practiced under the rubric "kinetic pantomime."
Less successful were excerpts from Nagrin's recent "Poems Off the Wall" (1981) and the improvisatory "Someone," (1976) in which the expressive aim was often too elusive for comfort. Another factor was technical -- Nagrin is in his sixties, and astonishingly deft given the fact, but no less than anyone is he exempt from time's passage. Intentions were always clearly legible, but the realizations were, necessarily, not all they used to be.
Other sorts of drawbacks diminished the rewards of the program's second half, performed by Improvisations Unlimited on the basis of several weeks' workshop activity with Nagrin. With the exception of the final "Trio" to music by Coltrane, these long-winded group exercises were obviously more meaningful to the participants than to onlookers. Nagrin's concepts don't transfer well to performers who lack his vision, experience and charisma.