Garth Fagan and Lar Lubovitch Celebrate Decades of Dancemaking


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 air—every 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. 

This year, Lar Lubovitch celebrates the 40th anniversary of his company, which has sprung again to vivid life in recent years after a period during which Lubovitch was busy with stints on Broadway and other work for hire. Performances at the American Dance Festival this past summer and at Dance Theater Workshop earlier this fall preceded the group’s City Center season. Lubovitch studied with Martha Graham, José Limón, Anna Sokolow, and Antony Tudor during his Juilliard days, but, to me, the influence most noticeable is that of Limón (although his sense of theater could have been sparked by Graham and Tudor). I’m not speaking of borrowed steps—Lubovitch has developed his own style—but in lyrical works like the 1986 Concerto Six Twenty-Two, to Mozart’s famous clarinet concerto. Rapture lifts the dancers’ bodies; they breathe into their curving, arching patterns—a quality that reminds me of Limón and his mentor, Doris Humphrey. In the fascinating opening section of his 1978 North Star, when the dancers (at these performances, final-year Juilliard students) swirl around with 1970s abandon, to Philip Glass’s work of the same name, you feel as if each cosmic wind that blows this churning galaxy into semi-unruly patterns peaks in a suspended breath. Lubovitch’s earthiness, however, has a lusty, digging-in peasant quality. The white-clad dancers who frolic buoyantly in a circle in Concerto Six Twenty-Two‘s opening Allegro also form shoulder-to-shoulder lines that hint at Slavic folk dances. Lubovitch often surprises you, though, with small changes of texture. Amid their big, luscious, sweeping moves, the dancers are also likely to simmer down into prissy tiptoe steps and follow these with a deliberately clunky jump. Or drop from airy exaltation into galumphing or sneaking around.

Lubovitch has assembled some superb performers. Charlaine Mei Katsuyoshi, Katarzyna Skarpetowska, Jonathan E. Alsberry, and Christopher Vo dance warmly and brightly together in that Allegro, as does another foursome composed of Mucuy Bolles, Katherine Wells, Attila Joey Csiki, and Brian McGinnis. Scott Rink and Kevin Scarpin roister with Wells to begin the final Rondo. Jay Franke and George Smallwood give a touching account of the duet that became famous during the AIDS crisis for its poetic portrait of a tender, supportive relationship between two men.

The newest work, Jangle, is subtitled Four Hungarian Dances and set to two wonderful Béla Bartok pieces for violin and piano, Rhapsody # 1 and Rhapsody #2. As dressed by Ann Hould-Ward, the seven dancers look as if they might be inhabitants of a European country between the wars who have come together for festivities in a town square. In the beginning, they’re skipping in patterns that form the spokes of a large wheel. Instead of the little unison duets that succeed one another in the opening section of Concerto Six Twenty-Two, these dancers pair up in scrappy, I’ll-do-my-thing-you-do-yours counterpoint; yet Katsuyoshi and Franke, Bolles and Csiki are never cantankerous, and they stay close together during their dialogues. The duet for Skarpetowska and McGinnis has shadowed moments. At one point, he lies on his back, and she steps onto his leg and belly, causing him to rock upward around her. In the end, she’s upside down in his arms, frozen in the flex-footed running position we’ve already seen others form upright while racing across the stage. Alsberry is the loner everyone loves. When he jumps backward into the wings after one solo, hands reach out to catch him. At the very end, they kneel in a line facing us, and he jumps over them. Tada! 

In this program, Lubovitch reunites not only with his younger self, but with his Juilliard background. His 1969 Whirligogs (Knots, Tangles, Confusion) was inspired, the program tells us, by Paul Taylor’s witty Three Epitaps, a dance that made a huge impression on young Lar. In anniversary fervor, he has reconstructed the dance for a larger cast—again Juilliard students, class of 2009. Eighteen people, wearing black unitards and black ski masks that show only their eyes, slump over and slog along in whirlpools of grim patterns, sometimes pressed together in lines of four or more, sometimes forming tunnels for others to scramble through. Jack Mehler’s lighting (after Craig Miller) throws their giant shadows on the backdrop. They scare even themselves, and whipping off their masks doesn’t reassure them for long. The third movement of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, with its welter of buried voices and clanging noises, is in itself alarming. But there’s hope. Two young people (Arika Yamada and Spenser Theberge) bump by accident and find their way into a duet. Love blooms in the unlikeliest places. And a choreographer can grow in just about any kind of soil, even though, as Balanchine once said, there is earth in which choreographers, like potatoes, really flourish. Given a good start, Lubovitch grew into a master.

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