On the Rise

June 20, 2007

You can’t watch Garth Fagan Dance these days and not notice Keisha Laren Clarke. She is the tall and model-slender beauty with the Modigliani-like neck, and she graces Fagan’s work with extraordinary serenity. Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times once called her “a Cubist Josephine Baker,” and Fagan uses her to great effect. In his duet for her and his longtime muse, Norwood Pennewell, in DANCECOLLAGEFOR-ROMIE, she emphasizes her extraordinary length by riding on Pennewell’s bent back with one leg extended out or up. When she turns, she’s so long she appears to leave behind her own afterimage. She suggests a goddess, not super-refined or over-trained, but natural, a fine match for Fagan, who has always gravitated toward unusual movers. And elsewhere in his fusion choreography, which is unlike anyone else’s, she clearly enjoys doing the contrasting, more weighted polyrhythmic African work.

Offstage Clarke is radiantly healthy-looking, downright bubbly, and at 5′ 8″ not actually as tall as she appears onstage. Her parents are Jamaican, although she was raised in Brooklyn. She started dancing at about 7 or 8 at Gotta Dance, Inc., a local school on Coney Island Avenue, went on to Shelbank Performing Arts Junior High School and then to New York’s La Guardia High School for the Performing Arts, attending The Ailey School on fellowship at the same time. Bolstered by a supportive family and an abiding religious faith, she did her high school dance classes in the morning, academics in the afternoon, and finally in the evening and on Saturdays her own Ailey classes. Although she now has very close-cropped hair, in high school she had a curly Afro, which caught the eye of a scout for Spike Lee when he was looking for dancers for Malcolm X.

One of her inspirations is Debbie Allen; another is Sarita Allen, then a member of the Ailey Company. “When I was in high school, she was my girl. She was strong. Her light shines so bright onstage, but even after all the technical things that she could do, it was about ‘I want to show you my soul.’ ”

Clark, 30, started college at SUNY Purchase, originally intending to be an accountant. But when she found that the program at Purchase wouldn’t let her take drama classes as well, she turned to the back pages of Dance Magazine and discovered the California Institute of the Arts.

After graduation she joined the Lula Washington Dance Theatre. “Lula helped to get me out of my shell in performance, helped me to blossom.” On the spur of the moment, she auditioned for the L.A. cast of The Lion King, which Fagan choreographed. (“It was around the corner,” she says.) Having studied Fagan’s work in a dance history class, she was startled to actually see him at the desk.

He eventually pulled her aside and said, “I’ve never seen anybody dance like you before. I would like you to be in my dance company.”

“What about The Lion King?” she protested.

“When you’re ready, call us,” he replied. After a year and a half of performing The Lion King she was ready. That was three years ago.

“The beginning was like boot camp. They say it takes two years to really get his technique down. It’s a different way of thinking, moving; even though you can see the ballet or different types of modern, African dance, or yoga or tai chi in it, you still have to open your mind. We do a lot of balances; there’s a lot of control. I had to learn how to do all that—I went through aches and pains. My extension was not very high when I came, but I just kept fighting for it.

“He molds. When he gets a dancer who is willing to allow him to mold, it’s all the more joy for him and for that person working with him. Garth takes care of us like we’re his children.”

After all the classes and the rehearsals and the preparation, physical and spiritual, the journey that is a dancer’s life, Clarke says, “Once you’re onstage, that’s when you should just enjoy it and live.”

Amanda Smith is a longtime writer for Dance Magazine.