A tall redhead with chiseled, elegant features, Richmond Ballet dancer Lauren Fagone has an arresting stage presence. At the start of Jessica Lang’s Women and the Sea: A Tribute to Will Barnet, Fagone stands completely still for two minutes, poised on a staircase in a portrait of melancholy, then in a single sweeping gesture she leaps from the steps into her partner’s arms. It is a typical moment for Fagone—from perfectly still to dramatically breathtaking.
Lang noticed Fagone, 29, early on in her work with the company. When the choreographer staged To Familiar Spaces in Dream at Richmond in 2005, she says, “I just couldn’t stop looking at her.” Two years later, Lang cast Fagone in the emotionally affecting role in Women and the Sea. “I knew she could stand still for two minutes and be completely present onstage,” Lang says. “She has a quality that’s like a painting.”
Now in her seventh season performing Richmond Ballet’s diverse repertory, Fagone has been drawn increasingly to contemporary work like Lang’s, despite her early classical training. “I’m captivated by roles requiring an infusion of personal experiences and feelings,” she says.
During her training, though, Fagone aspired more to classical and neoclassical roles. Growing up in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, her inspiration came early. “My mom loves to tell the story of how when I was 4, I saw Suzanne Farrell on Sesame Street and apparently I was so enthralled I ran around the house and begged my mom to put me in ‘ballyay.’ I couldn’t even pronounce it, but I knew I wanted to do it.” From classes at the local YMCA, Fagone went on to study at the School of American Ballet in New York; at North Carolina Dance Theatre under Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux; and at Indiana University with Leslie Peck, Violette Verdy, and others. After two years in the program, Peck, who had served as Richmond Ballet’s ballet mistress for 13 years, recommended Fagone to artistic director Stoner Winslett.
Says Richmond Ballet artistic associate Malcolm Burn, “Lauren was very much in the classical mold. She knew her vocabulary, she knew her presentation.” Yet despite a solid technical grounding, Fagone says she never felt at ease in a traditional framework. “For so many years,” she says, “I seemed to be battling against the need to conform to a certain aesthetic, which I was told throughout my training I didn’t possess.” At Richmond, she felt excited that the company regularly commissioned new work and hoped that she might have opportunities to explore in a contemporary vein.
Her wish came true. “Now she’s the darling of the modern crowd,” says Burn. “They all want her for their ballets. She can adapt to a new style, a new set of rules, a new set of information. Her work ethic is phenomenal.”
Fagone credits some of her artistic growth to dancing for the National Choreographers Initiative over the last four summers. Based in Corona del Mar, California, NCI hires off-contract professional dancers and provides choreographers with the opportunity to create and show new works. “I love the process of trying new movement,” she says. “There’s no other feeling like putting yourself out there and giving it a whirl.”
Versatility has become Fagone’s signature at Richmond Ballet. It’s earned her opportunities as well as praise from Winslett. “She’s grown technically to shed any particular style and become a sponge that’s adaptable to a new style,” says Winslett. “That’s what you need in order to do this repertory.”
Over the last year, Fagone performed the fairy godmother in Malcolm Burn’s Cinderella, and “An Episode from His Past” in Tudor’s Jardin aux Lilas, in addition to dancing in a range of new works. Watching Fagone blossom at Richmond Ballet, Lang says, “Each time I go there, I can see her growing into a beautiful, confident woman and artist.”
Fagone’s future looks bright, with plenty of new challenges coming to her each season. And down the line? “As long as I feel I’m in a place like Richmond Ballet, I want to milk it for all it’s worth,” she says. “And I think maybe someday when I’m ready to hang up the pointe shoes, I might be interested in pursuing a completely different type of movement.”
Lea Marshall teaches dance at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Photo by Aaron Sutton, Courtesy Richmond Ballet.