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By Susan Reiter
Photo of Woza by Greg Barrett, Courtesy GFD.
If ever a company had the proverbial humble beginnings, it was Garth Fagan Dance. A professor at the State University of New York, Brockport, in 1970, Fagan began teaching a SUNY-affiliated dance class in Rochester for completely untrained students, and soon the budding choreographer gathered them into a company. This earliest version of the troupe, now among the most distinctive of American modern dance companies, first took to the stage under the hopeful name Bottom of the Bucket But… Dance Theatre.
The company’s rise was gradual but steady, and—once it hit its stride in the 1980s—inexorable. Fagan, who began dancing in his native Jamaica with Ivy Baxter’s Jamaican National Dance Company, had plunged into New York City’s modern dance scene in the 1960s, studying with Martha Graham, José Limón, and Alvin Ailey. As a choreographer, he brought his varied movement experiences to bear on a singular, inquisitive sensibility, forging one of the clear, recognizable styles of recent decades. Polyrhythms and a powerful rooted center drawn from Afro-Caribbean dance blended with elements of the major moderns, as well as a postmodern willingness to experiment. Working from his sophisticated musicality and drawing on his dancers’ rapidly developing technical prowess, he created a rich repertory of idiosyncratic, complex, riveting dances.
There is much to celebrate as Garth Fagan Dance marks its 40th anniversary, which was launched in June with a retrospective in Rochester. Next month, the company returns to New York’s Joyce Theater, where it has performed regularly since 1984. The repertory will feature notable revivals, including last year’s MUDAN 175/39, and a world premiere. MUDAN is remarkable for its focused eloquence, ability to surprise, and original treatment of Chinese music played by a string quartet. For the first time ever, another choreographer’s name will appear on the program. Fagan has invited Norwood (“PJ”) Pennewell, the company stalwart who is also rehearsal director and Fagan’s assistant, to create his debut work.
As early as 1974, New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff, encountering Fagan’s troupe at Jacob’s Pillow, noticed that something significant was developing in Rochester. In 1980, she wrote, “Their presence can be spellbinding, so absorbed do they seem in the texture of each work.” It’s no surprise that Fagan went on to receive a Dance Magazine Award in 1990.
Fagan’s Prelude: Discipline is Freedom (made in 1981 and revised in ’83) opens many of the company’s performances. Part theatricalized warm-up, part vocabulary lesson, Prelude introduces Fagan’s signature movements and exemplifies the technical demands he places on his dancers. They luxuriate in slow, suspended phrases, linger meditatively in off-center balances, and later explode in a whirlwind of furious spins and fierce leaping sequences along a diagonal.
His supremely focused, powerfully individual dancers are a unique breed of virtuosos. Anything but showboats, they quietly invite the audience in rather than playing to the crowd. They imbue Fagan’s sensual, often quirky movement with a sculptural beauty; they highlight subtle details that resonate eloquently.
Part of what gives the company its cohesion and independence is the fact that Fagan put down his artistic roots in Rochester—a mid-sized university city about 300 miles north of New York—and never left. “I like solitude to work, and I like calm. I did New York in my youth,” Fagan said during a recent phone interview from his home. “I can fly to any East Coast city in an hour from here,” he points out, while acknowledging that the location does limit funding opportunities.
Dancers drawn to his work simply make the move to Rochester because that is where he is. Their dedication to Fagan is legendary. Natalie Rogers-Cropper, a longtime Fagan dancer who is now assistant rehearsal director and director of the school, relocated from Houston as soon as she saw her first Fagan performance. “I sat back in my seat and was completely blown away. I saw myself on that stage with them. I knew this movement was something I should have been doing all along. It was an instant revelation. I immediately went backstage and said, ‘How soon can I come to Rochester?’ ”
Longevity is a company trait. Alongside an exciting crop of new members, one finds the quietly noble Steve Humphrey, who was there when Fagan launched the troupe. Pennewell, who joined in 1978 and dances lead roles in nearly every work, says, “We stay because we are totally committed to Garth’s vision and philosophy. He is always posing really interesting movement, psychological, and emotional challenges. And as soon as you feel that you’ve acquired a certain level of awareness—when you feel comfortable enough to execute that onstage—he’s ready with another series of challenges for you. It also helps that the technique he established keeps our bodies in the condition where we can continue on for as long as we do.”
That technique is honed in two-hour company classes, twice daily. Fagan points to the emphasis on core strength as crucial. “They can find their center in a heartbeat—from whatever unusual position I place them in. They get to their center, nail it, and then move on. We work on that in class, over and over.”
Rogers-Cropper, who teaches both company class and students at the school affiliated with the company, describes how those “unusual positions” can lead to maniacally difficult coordinations. “Your head is doing one thing, the arms another, the legs are on a different pace or rhythm from the rest of the body. You have to learn how to coordinate all those different body parts, and still move with the music. The sheer physicality of the technique is a stamina-building tool. It strengthens the joints and muscles. Ultimately, because of the challenge of moving like that, your brain gets a workout.”
Fagan, who turned 70 in May, recalls, “From the start, I wanted to create a dance company that reflected a community of people onstage, with all ages. So many companies still discard people after 30. I wanted to have a technique that would keep dancers dancing longer, because of all the things you learn in life that just need time for you to experience them. We have the youngsters to do the big brassy leaps, but there’s a simple communicative gesture that a Steve Humphrey and a Norwood Pennewell can give you, that takes years to develop.”
What does Fagan look for when auditioning dancers? “I am looking for that person inside the dancer—not just the wonderful extension, nice big jumps, fluid back. Those are all good things to have, but I want to see the human being who’s in control of all those elements, and see if they can hear what I’m saying—and if they can change the phrasing on a dime; if they can expand when necessary, and tighten it up when necessary. Only a very small percentage of the audience is going to see the details I insist on. But that’s the percentage I work for the most.”
Fagan’s musical selections are as varied as they are unpredictable, ranging from Brahms to Tan Dun, from Duke Ellington to Keith Jarrett—and his dancers must have a specific musicality. “You dance with the music, not to the music, in Garth’s work,” says Rogers-Cropper. “There are spaces and stillnesses in the music. You become a part of this, as another instrument. So you don’t necessarily have to do exactly what the music is doing, but you become another piece of the puzzle.”
Over four eventful decades, there have been notable milestones. Certainly Griot New York (1991), Fagan’s richly inventive, probing full-evening collaboration with Wynton Marsalis, marked a new level of maturity for the company. Fagan’s Tony Award–winning choreography for The Lion King, the seemingly now-and-forever 1997 Broadway musical, with productions running worldwide, boosted the visibility of the company. “People come backstage at our performances and say, ‘I saw Lion King and I just had to come see your company, and I’m so glad I did.’ That has helped tremendously.”
Several subsequent Broadway offers have beckoned, but held no interest. “It would have to be the right project, because it takes me away from my company, and that’s my first love.” It’s a fatherly love that extends to knowing and caring about his dancers deeply. Fagan cultivates their minds, holding post-rehearsal discussions of articles he brings in for analysis. “I like intelligent dancers. Any of my dancers can hold an articulate, intelligent conversation with you about most anything,” he says.
“There’s always a lot of stimulating energy inside and outside the studio,” Pennewell notes. “He’s got us going to movies and art exhibits—all kinds of galleries—whenever we’re on tour. Now, we’ve actually started turning him on to things. You can see this wonderful smile of pride he displays when we start giving him ideas.”
That’s just one of the many reasons Fagan has to feel proud.
Susan Reiter writes about dance for New York Press Los Angeles Times.