By Alexis Soloski
By Molly Grogan
By R. C. Baker
By Christian Viveros-Fauné
By Alexis Soloski
By Alexis Soloski
By Lilly Lampe
A tall, slim man walks onto the stage and swings one leg into the air. He holds that balance for an astonishingly long time, erupts into a flurry of a turn, and flips his hands lightly in the air, as if brushing the whole virtuosity business away. Then he folds into a leisurely somersault, and rises to balance again. You'd be surprised how many dance-lovers would know that the choreographer was Garth Fagan; his style may nod unapologetically to classic modern dance, Afro-Caribbean style, and ballet, but it's definitely distinctive. Fans of the company that's been based in Rochester for 38 years could also guess that the man with the mile-long legs was Norwood Pennewell, Fagan's assistant and his muse for a startling 30 years.
Every New York season of Fagan's that I can remember begins with that sequence of movement. It launches Prelude, a dance from 1981 (revised 1983) that presents Fagan's marvelous dancers and introduces us to his vocabulary. Its title is accompanied by the phrase "Discipline Is Freedom," and that, in good part, is what it's all about. The balances, the skidding steps, the struts, the bounds, the flippy gestures, the rhythmic jitters, the effortless leaps that seem to suspend for a second in the airâevery move prints a clear image onto the stage. Yet nothing looks posed or prettified (when a dancer sticks one leg out to the back, you'd never call it an arabesque). The 13 dancers make Fagan's choreography look like an engrossing, enjoyable pastime that feeds their imaginations as well as goading their bodies. And, although Fagan choreography ventures into dark themes, Sturm und Drang isn't his thing. Feel/Think, an engrossing, low-key solo for Pennewell (excerpted from the 2006 Senku), shows a man meandering to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's music down a path that's mental as well as physical, his emotions expressed by changes in dynamics rather than by overt "acting"; sometimes Pennewell slouches along, launches a move as if it were a sudden bright idea, pauses, thinks some more, feels his way.
I tend to be most fond of Fagan dances that show their bones, like Light (the last section of the 2005 Life: Dark/Light, which appears on both the company's Joyce programs). It's a pleasure to watch Nicolette Depass just stroll back and forth on a diagonal a while, before Lindsay Benton and Annique Roberts join to traverse their own paths. That sunny, yet determined opening image functions like a kind of ground bass that underlies the ensuing outbursts by 11 dancers. Treading to Billy Bangs's music, glowing in C.T. Oakes's lighting, and wearing (all but Pennewell) Mary Nemecek Peterson's filmy, loose-fitting white jumpsuits, they're my kind of angels.
The brand-new Phone Tag, Thanks & Things is a more complicated work: five sections set to music by Bongami Ndodana, Florence Price, Ludovic Lamothe, or Coleridge-Taylor PerkinsonXXX (played on tape by William Chapman Nyaho). The first sound we hear is a grainy recorded voice announcing, "You have 43 old messages." Fagan must rarely be at home and, yes, he saves those pesky things (the heart-warming ones anyway), and some of them replay during the dance. Because of the poor audio quality of answering machines and the overly loud volume at which they're played in the theater, it's often difficult to understand what the callers are saying. Most of the speakers praise Fagan's work or congratulate him on various anniversaries and awards (I could do with some grittier messages). It's my impression that sometimes the messages relate only in a general way to the dancing, but at other times they connect powerfully. Sweet children's voices sing "Happy Birthday," and Roberts and Lynet' Rochelle frolic and skip together. I can certainly make out the excited voices of Depass and fellow company dancer Bill Ferguson, breaking the news to Fagan that they're going to have a baby. And this must be a recent message; dancing as vigorously and beautifully as ever throughout the evening, Depass here holds her melon of a belly and sways happily.
Oakes's lighting and Fagan's choreography emphasizes the isolation that's a part of our electronic and digital world. We often receive the most personal messages through a machine. Cell-phone users walk the city streets in cocoons of ersatz intimacy, almost oblivious to the world they can see and hear. Wearing curiously designed black-and-white costumes by Kate Blomquist, the dancers often seem in their own worlds. Roberts, Guy Thorne, Rochelle, and Khama Phillips all begin by taking a few backward steps and arching their bodies (maybe their personal maelstroms of messages are too much for them). The zone of light where Roberts first thrashes into balances fades out when Thorne's appears. Roberts waits in darkness while he dances. Pennewell performs alone on stage, disgruntled by what he hears (or doesn't).
But in the end, this somewhat enigmatic work is about the communication among Fagan and these beautiful people (Kaori Otani, Solomon Dumas, and Naimah Saleem join for the last section), and between them and us, the watchers. Once, during the piece, a caller alludes to the upcoming presidential election. The company's November 4 first program at the Joyce was a fitting prelude to the uplifting news awaiting us at home. I'll bet the tears of joy flowed backstage for that other opening night on the stage of the world.Â