Garth Fagan is one of the few choreographers working today whose aesthetic and process have much in common with those of modern dance pioneers (Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, say), although, unlike them, he pays decent wages, provides health insurance, and views his company members with benevolence. Based in Rochester, away from the New York City scene, he’s created a way of life for Garth Fagan Dance, along with a repertory. Like that earlier generation of artists, he advises dancers about books to read, museums to visit, and music to listen to. And in two two-hour classes a day, they perfect the unique style he has developed, mixing elements of African and Caribbean movement with modern dance. Over the years, many young performers, especially African American ones, have taken one look at Fagan’s work and hurried themselves to Rochester to audition, ready to drop whatever plans they’ve made for their lives. Steve Humphrey, now 54 and still gracing the company with his wise, vigorous performing, hadn’t even thought of being a dancer until he met Fagan.
I mean no disrespect for ballet when I say Fagan’s vocabulary is almost nothing like the classical one. A leg lifted high to the back doesn’t look like an arabesque; there’s nothing dainty about a Fagan dancer perched on half toe (which all of them do a lot and for amazingly long stretches of time). Their robust jumps and leaps are shapely, but sail into the air with a minimum of preparation. They look grounded yet resilient. His choreography presents them as memorable individuals with almost tribal connections.
The terrific young Khama Philips (replacing the injured Guy Thorne on very short notice) begins Fagan’s new Senku with a solo that shows Fagan working at the top of his form. To music by Joshua Uzoigwe, played live (and brilliantly) by pianist William Chapman Nyaho, Philips starts out twitchy and truculent. His high-kicking jumps and his fall into a split seem part of a percussive dialogue with himself (akin to the one that the pianist’s rapid two hands are engaged in), and the big, confident moves banter with his wary adjustments and drooping poses.
Fagan has chosen the music for the four-part Senku wisely. Selections by Oswald Russell, Coleridge Taylor Perkins, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor—all played by Nyaho—work excellently together (the Ghanaian word senku refers to a keyboard instrument). The choreography for Talk: Ms./Mrs., sets up an easy exchange of steps between two women—one (Nicolette Depass) perhaps more mature, the other (Annique Roberts) younger. At one point Roberts curls over, and Depass looks concerned, but in the simple ending it’s clear that they help each other equally.
Fagan’s dances rarely tells stories, but images of support, commonality, and tenderness are major themes. In “Think/Do,” the group section of Senku, people not dancing may watch those in motion. The choreographer is adept at juxtaposing stillness with scampering flurries or sudden explosions of movement. Senku doesn’t convey a progression from section to section, but it does begin with a solo for an eager young man and ends with one for a mature one. In the last section of the dance, “Feel/Think,” Norwood Pennewell is alone onstage and a bit weary. Coleridge Taylor’s Scherzo spits up a fragment of Old Man River. What Fagan and the magnificent Pennewell show us is a thinking man at ease in his body but not always in his mind or heart.
Because of the injury to Thorne, Fagan’s 2005 Life: Dark/Light unfortunately couldn’t be shown in its entirety. The last section only was preceded on Program A by a Fagan classic, the perennially winning 1983 introduction to the dancers and what they can do, Prelude (“Discipline is Freedom”), followed by “Detail: Down Home Also” from DANCECOLLAGEFORROMIE (2003). This last, a duet set to an instrumental version of Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasilieros, shows us Pennewell and Depass in tender communion. Without a context provided by the whole piece, it’s hard to be sure what the pair’s brief harvesting gestures signify, or the pillows to which Pennewell carries Depass at the end.
Although the programming wasn’t ideal, the final piece, Translation Transition (2002), would raise any theater’s roof. Here come the performers in their bright costumes by Mary Nemeck Peterson, bursting onto a bright stage (lighting by C.T. Oakes). The Jazz Jamaica All Stars (on tape) deliver the sterling music selections for “Three,” “Two” and “One Love” (by Clement Dodd, Wayne Shorter, and Harry Johnson respectively). We get to see Pennewell, Depass, and Roberts shimmy and thrust, hold those long, cool balances, and sink into deep side lunges. We can relish how playfully and sexily the short, sturdy Humphrey and tall, slim Micha Scott dance together, amid the lively activity and comings and goings of the others (including Kevin Moore, Demetrius Blocker, Kaori Otani, Kelly Benjamin, Lynet Rochelle, and Todd VanSlambrouck). Again Pennewell, tall, agile, beautifully built (hard to believe he’s 47!) concludes the piece, this time in silence. The one love he’s for sure faithful to is this dancing by this man, Garth Fagan.