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Garth Fagan Dance at 40

The Quarante King: A Lionized Local Celebrates 40 Years as Dance's Master

The Jewish Ledger Newspaper, December 2, 2012

Written by Arlene Hisiger

With his embracing laugh and easy accessibility, you could be tempted to call him down-to-earth. But to do so would be to deny his unearthly ability to channel creative vision into kinetic energy of such force that he, and by extension, his dancers, all but levitate above the stage.

This is but one of several perceived competing dualities that converge in creative service to the inspired vision of Garth Fagan, the Kingston, Jamaica born Founder and Artistic Director of Garth Fagan Dance.

A reluctant participant in his parents’ attempts at cultural enrichment, Fagan failed to understand how the likes of Vladimir Horowitz, Marian Anderson or Arthur Rubinstein could move his parents to tears. “As a kid growing up in Jamaica, they dragged me to lunch hour concerts,” Fagan says. “I <b>hated </b>them,” he laughingly recalls, “because I had to sit still.” Conjuring up visions of the promised post-concert malted milk and burger at the local dime store, Fagan managed to stay the course. One would be hard pressed to detect any sign of cultural éclat at this juncture in his personal history

Yet, despite his seeming youthful disinterest in the arts, the particular art form that would capture his soul had begun to stir within him. Overriding his Oxford- trained father’s dismissal of his passion as a waste of time, at age 16, Fagan made the leap from gymnastics to join the Jamaica National Dance Theatre Company. From there he made his way to America and choreographed his first piece at Wayne State University in Detroit, where he attended college. He would go on to be schooled by dance’s great masters: Martha Graham, Jose Limon, and Alvin Ailey, to name a few.

A one-year teaching position at SUNY Brockport, evolved into a lifetime residency in Rochester. The rest, as they say, is history; a dance history enriched by Fagan’s unique imprint. An imprint he calls vocabulary.

In 1970, he fashioned a disciplined dance troupe from a ragtag group of potential-laden yet untrained students, defiantly dubbing them as the “Bottom of the Bucket… But Dance Theatre.” Of those times, Fagan declared that while he might not have been working with trained dancers he was beginning to define his brand of dance – his vocabulary.

“My vocabulary is more philosophy than technique,” Fagan explains. “I didn’t want dancers showing off technique, pretending to be people.” “I wanted them to be people who were dancing.” For Fagan, it wasn’t about dancers who would turn to the audience as if to say: “Wasn’t what I just did fabulous?” He wanted them to just do it.

Fagan might best be described as a dance alchemist in his seamless yet distinctive blend of genres. “I wanted,” he says, “the weight of modern dance, the speed and precision of ballet, the poly-rhythms of Afro-Caribbean dance and the experimentation of post-modern dance.”<span>&nbsp; </span>The trick was to meld all these dance styles together without turning them into a murky mush. “Each flavor should work well with the others yet still remain identifiable,” says Fagan, defining his objective in creating this movement mélange.

His dance vocabulary is very much present-day in that the women in his troupe are not “little girls, waiting on princes.” They are, rather, “contemporary women who can make hard-core decisions, and jump and turn like the men do.” His male dancers, in turn, “can be vulnerable as well as virile and testosterone-laden. The gender borders are expanded,” Fagan says.

As Fagan celebrates 40 years of proud accomplishment in the world of dance he dons bi-focals concentrating on past accomplishments while assessing future viability.

The many awards lavished upon Fagan are a testament to his virtuosity as a brilliant choreographer, teacher, and leader. On a personal level, however, a particularly satisfying professional moment occurred in his native Jamaica. “In 1973, I took 15 dancers to Jamaica,” says Fagan. “I called my dad and told him that I had reserved a box seat for him. After the show, he came backstage raving about the performance ‘If you had told me about the intellectual and cultural substance involved, I would not have fought you so hard,’” his dad exclaimed. This coming around to seeing things his way was particularly poignant for Fagan for not long after that performance his father succumbed to a stroke while still in his fifties.

As for the future, Fagan is confident that the troupe he fathered and nurtured into existence will remain vibrant and strong. He points, as “proud and knowledgeable papa,” to Norwood Pennewell’s debut choreography, as well as to other capable troupe members as proof that his legacy will live on—“they will keep standards up,” he says. A supreme joy, as well, is the participation of 24 alumni ranging in age from 35-65 years old, in the troupe’s current fortieth anniversary performance tour. With the alums participation, Fagan is reassured that his “discipline is freedom” credo will be disseminated by his “children,” whatever their current occupations, wherever they reside.

That Fagan’s creativity is fueled by a multiplicity of influences is well-known. A lesser known fact, perhaps, is that he includes Jewish traditions among those influences. Fagan’s paternal grandmother was Jewish. While his grandmother was alive the family added Chanukah to their family celebrations. Mostly, Fagan fondly recalls eating “all the good food” in Grandma Matilda’s house, most notably, gefilte fish. These recollections inspire a fractured version of a well-known proverb: “Give a man a fish and he has food for a day.<span>&nbsp; </span>Give a man gefilte fish and he has nourishment for a lifetime.”

We who have been nourished these past 40 years by Mr. Fagan’s creative vision, salute his quintessential American achievement: E pluribus unum—out of multiple spheres of influence he has forged a singular vision to enrich us all.

Contact Arlene at 585-442-6108 or wordtailor@aol.com
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