Good dances are about bodies, what bodies can feel and do, “what,” as choreographer Joe Goode explains, “the body knows.” Garth Fagan’s dancers’ bodies know something different, which is why, when you watch them, you see insinuations of traditions—Graham, Horton, Limon, African and Afro-Caribbean dance—comprise something completely different.
Unlike other Modern companies known for supplementing Western techniques with African movements (Ailey may be the first that comes to mind) Fagan summarily drops ballet’s proud posture (that lofty spine along which the chest thrusts forward, the shoulders hang back, and the head seemingly floats a foot above the body). For Fagan’s dancers, arms hang from shoulders, rather than growing from wing-bones, their gestures tossed, their extensions only occasionally complete. Fagan legs, meanwhile, adhere more closely to balletic tradition, so that, while the chest drapes, almost limp, the legs maintain a sharpened tilt or level lateral T with disturbing ease. The result is an inversion of the classic Graham struggle: where once the solar plexus strained toward the heavens against bowels chained to the earth, the relaxed chest now hangs with verifiable weight, all the brightness in the very pit of the gut, shining through weightless legs that rotate from deep within hip sockets. Jumps, then, take on a surreal suspension, because though the dancer isn’t very high off the ground, he floats there more dangerously than a ballerina ever would. The bodies are soft and human, rather than haughty and divine.
Good dances are about bodies, and everything else is décor: costumes to augment or muffle lines, lighting to set a tone or frame a space, music to dance with or against. Narratives have long been eschewed for concepts; audiences who may not understand or care about bodies can cling to these, and so choreographers often use them to justify their work. But good dances are never about concepts–they only exist in concert with (good) concepts, or in spite of (bad) ones. Fagan’s Phone Tag, Thanks & Things, which saw its world premiere at the Joyce this November, belongs unfortunately to the latter category. A five-part dance featuring nine dancers in various groupings, wearing stitched-together sacks of cream, black, and brown over ankle-length tights, danced beautifully in spite of, or over, or through, the concept.
The driving concept is in the title, and is manifested not particularly in the choreography, but in the distracting, self-aggrandizing, conceptual soundtrack: a variety of lovely solo piano pieces punctuated throughout by a tinny beep, a mechanized bleating of date and time, and a voicemail message congratulating, adulating, and thanking Garth for his brilliance, his kindness, his importance, and, once, telling Garth to turn on channel thirteen to see Michelle Obama on The View. Other messages included children wishing Garth a Happy Father’s Day, and the announcement of a third month pregnancy (danced poignantly by a five-months-pregnant Nicolette Depass, whose balance and tenacity are to be reckoned with).
Personal mythology has a trenchant place in art’s history, as does embarrassing egoism, but these recordings, aside from being sonically ugly, remind us of an all-state checkers champion trying his hand at chess. Fagan’s work for bodies alone is fresh, real, particular, and consideration-worthy. To adulterate that work with an unsavvy attempt to post-modernize, self-reference, and generate meaning outside of movement is to distract, detract, and ultimately disappoint. The night I attended, Fagan gave us an antidote, closing the show with the freewheeling and pure Light (an excerpt from 2005’s Life: Dark/Light), but we can only hope that he will return to his own classic form rather than continue in this new, noisy direction.