Garth Fagan Dance Turns Forty

JOYCE THEATER | NOVEMBER 9 - 14


Woza (L to R: Lindsay Renea, Khama Kgari, Nicolette Depass, Vitolio Jeune, Norwood “PJ” Pennewell, Kaori Otani). Photo: Greg Barrett.

You could say that Garth Fagan knows a thing or two about longevity. His choreography, a modern/Afro-Caribbean hybrid with the heat of Alvin Ailey and the cool intelligence of Merce Cunningham, has kept audiences and critics in thrall for decades. He inspires loyalty in his company members and, with bodies conditioned to go the distance, they stick with him for the long term (company members Steve Humphrey and Norwood Pennewell have been with Fagan for more than 30 years). And let’s not forget Fagan’s choreography for The Lion King, which earned him a Tony in 1998—that megahit is threatening to top that other famous feline musical for all-time longest Broadway run.

In November, Fagan celebrated the 40th anniversary of his Rochester-based Garth Fagan Dance with a season at the Joyce Theater. It’s a rare modern dance troupe that reaches such a milestone, and Garth Fagan Dance gave itself well-deserved props with a week of performances that showcased Fagan classics and two world premieres. The program reviewed here included Prelude: Discipline is Freedom (1983), an excerpt from Griot New York (1991), Woza (1999), and the premieres Thanks Forty, which pays homage to the past, and Hylozoic, which signals the new. Choreographed by Pennewell, Fagan’s longtime principal dancer and muse, Hylozoic marks the company’s first performance of a work created by someone other than Fagan himself.

For those who don’t know (I didn’t until I read the program notes), “hylozoism” is “the philosophy that holds that matter is inseparable from life.” Kind of like animism minus the soul, hylozoism proposes that everything in the universe is alive. Even without the program notes, though, Pennewell’s piece vividly communicates that idea. As dancers drift away from the group singly and in pairs, later reassembling in different formations, they call to mind clouds being blown across the sky.

Hylozoic is an ensemble work that reflects Fagan’s influence, most notably in its virtuosic movement vocabulary and phrasing. Sustained extensions abound (talk about longevity!) and stillnesses punctuate the action. At one point, the women travel in turning leaps so powerful it’s as if an invisible force is whipping them around by the foot. In the end, the dancers come to a sudden stop and look out at the audience. It’s a charged moment—nature has turned its gaze on us—and then it’s over. The dancers abruptly turn and walk off the stage.

Fagan’s Thanks Forty doesn’t fare as well. Without program notes we’d never guess why these four sections were in the same piece. Not that there weren’t some arresting moments. Nicolette Depass’s opening solo, “MUSE-Work,” shows her in top form. Depass, another company veteran, has the abs of a competitive body builder and a back as supple as warm taffy. Watching her melt languorously from one pose into another, it’s easy to see why she inspires Fagan. “JUMP-Earn,” a testosterone-charged section for four men, was another of the evening’s highlights. Driven by a hectic Shostakovich cello concerto, the men launched themselves through the air and bounded through their balancés with fierce determination.

Things go downhill from there. The playful but tepid “HEAL-Pray” features four women in ruffled skirts frolicking to music by Bonga Kuenda and the sounds of rushing water. And the finale, “FETE-Joys,” is a ’70s-inflected dance party whose jollity feels forced. Fagan is adept at blending genres and styles, effortlessly mixing classicism with Afro-Caribbean polyrhythms while drawing on the influences of the modern dance giants with whom he studied: Martha Graham, Pearl Primus, Alvin Ailey. In Thanks Forty, however, it seems that Fagan has assembled many colorful patches but no thread to stitch them together.

Maybe it would have been better to let the past speak for itself, as some of the strongest examples of Fagan’s work were seen in his earlier pieces. Take Prelude: Discipline is Freedom, a kind of master class in his style. It begins with pliés, Horton tilts, and lateral stretches, and progresses to across-the-floor leaps and quicksilver chaîné turns, with the dancers’ arms whipping about their heads in speed-blurred semaphores.

Viewing but an excerpt from Griot New York is a tantalizing tease. Set to music by Wynton Marsalis, the dance features a man and a woman performing a sensual duet in the shadow of what looks like a giant melting spatula. The pair maintains contact to the end, when they kneel and tip toward one another until their heads meet. As the lights dim, they lean into each other, tenderly touching foreheads, then noses, chins, and chests.

Wrapping up the program was Woza, Zulu for “come.” This dance includes the standout section “Come…Forced Voyage,” which begins with five couples lying intertwined and staggered across the stage. The women lie on their stomachs and slowly arch away from and back to the floor, while the men sit behind them as though riding in a rocking boat. Later, the whole ensemble appears to become the sea itself, rolling across the stage in waves.

The evening’s real party comes in the last segment, “Come…Celebration.” Set against a sky-blue background, the dance evokes the joy and serenity of having made it through rough waters to the Promised Land. But with Fagan at the helm, we can be sure that the journey’s not over yet.

Contributor

Michelle Vellucci

Michelle Vellucci is a Manhattan-based dance writer and book critic.

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