Fagan, Garth 1940–
Garth Fagan 1940–
Frenetic energy, movement seemingly out of sync with the accompanying music, abstract yet powerful storytelling, austere, emotional, eclectic. Such are the descriptions evoked by Garth Fagan’s choreography. Garth Fagan has taken the modern dance scene by storm, and his work has touched audiences around the world. From his own company, Garth Fagan Dance, to the stage of Broadway’s smash musical, The Lion King, Fagan’s unique approach to movement has continued to expand and enliven the language of dance.
Garth Fagan was born May 3, 1940 in Kingston, Jamaica. His grandmother was Jewish, his Oxfordeducated father, Jamaica’s chief education officer. Garth discovered the world of dance through gymnastics, but it was a passion strongly discouraged by his father. Believing dance to be a waste of time, his father wanted him to follow in his academic footsteps.
Despite his father’s objections, however, Fagan could not stay away from dance. He studied and danced with Ivy Baxter and the Jamaican National Dance Company, touring throughout Latin America while still in high school and even performing at Fidel Castro’s inauguration. He also studied with noted Caribbean dancers Pearl Primus and Lavinia Williams.
In 1960, at the age of 20, Fagan left Jamaica for the United States and enrolled at Wayne State University in Detroit. There, seemingly still influenced by his father, he majored in psychology. He never abandoned his dancing, though, even during his undergraduate years. However, not until he had nearly finished his master’s program in psychology did he admit that dance was his true calling. He continued to define and refine his technique, and he spent vacations studying with such dance greats as Martha Graham, Jose Limon, Mary Hinkson, and Alvin Ailey. Only a back injury forced him to stop performing, and in 1970 he moved to Rochester, New York for what he assumed would be a one-year teaching position at State University of New York-Brockport.
As part of his responsibilities at the university, Fagan taught at the SUNY-affiliated Educational Opportunities.
At a Glance…
Born Garth Fagan May 3, 1940 in Kingston, Jamaica; son of S.W. Fagan, then Chief Education Officer in Jamaica, and Louise I. (Walker) Fagan; Divorced; Father of two. Education: BA, Wayne State University., 1968; DFA, University of Rochester, NY, 1986; Honorary Doctorates; The Juillard Sch., Hobart Coll., 1987, William Smith Coll., 1987, Nazareth Coll., 1990.
Career: Worked as artistic dir. for various companies, Detroit, 1970s; Artistic dir., founder, pres, Garth Pagan Dance, Rochester, NY, 1973-; choreographer, Dance heatre of Harlem; 1986; Ameritan Music Theatre Festival, Philadelphia, 1986; NY Shakespeare Festival, 1988; The Jamison Project, NY, 1988; Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, 1993; Jose Limon Co., 1994. “The Lion King,” 1997; Also Asst/Assoc. Prof, SUNYBrockport 1972-85, prof., 1985-86, Distinguished Univ. Prof., 1986-.
Member: Natl Corp. Fund for Dance, Dance USA (Bd. of Dirs.), Western State Arts federation (panelist), NY Foundation for Arts (Bd. of Dirs.), NY State Council on the Arts (dance panelist).
Selected awards: Recipient of Arts and Culture Award, Rochester Black Communicators, 1983; Choreography Fellowship, Natl. Endowment for the Arts, 1983; Distinguished Professor’s Award, SUNY, 1986; Arts for Greater Rochester, Cultural Award, 1986; NY State Governor’s Arts Award, 1986; Monarch Award, Natl. Council forCuttureand Art, 1987; Guggenheim Fellow, Guggenheim Foundation, 1988; NY Dance and Performance Award 1990; Dante Magatine Award 1990; program Role Model Award, Learning Through Ari Guggenheim Museum Program, 1992; Lillian Fairchild Award; Arts Achievement Award, Wayne State Univ.; Bessie Award for Sustained Achievement; Nominated for a Tony Award for choreography of The Lion King, 1998.
Addresses: Office –Garth Fagan Dance, 50 Chestnut Street, Rochester, NY 14604-2318.
ties Center in downtown Rochester, helping to prepare “disadvantaged” students for college. He began teaching these completely untrained bodies to dance. Amazingly, from this most unlikely group of individuals emerged Mr. Fagan’s dance company. As might be imagined, colleagues criticized his choice of dancers, calling them “the bottom of the bucket.” Fagan mimicked his critics, and, as a sign of his own optimism about the potential of his troupe, he initially named it “The Bottom of the Bucket BUT … Dance Theatre.”
That Fagan began with this unseemly ensemble fits well with his original approach to dance itself. Not content to remain within traditional vocabulary, Fagan sought to change dance. Most importantly, as he told Nancy Small of the Los Angeles Times, he has ardently believed that “[I]f we don’t push the art form forward, it’s going to die.” His company, in essence, has always provided the vehicle for his vision, and he trained his dancers to embody it. There are no pat formulas, no overused dance cliches. Thus, he claims that it was actually easier to start with novices than to retrain classically-schooled dancers. The manner in which this concept translates into Fagan’s artistry sets him apart from other modern dance choreographers.
Fagan’s dance vision was a melange of the varied dance forms to which he has been exposed. Combining, in Fagan’s mind, the polyrhythms, flexibility, and “rootedness” of Afro-Caribbean dance with the floor work, balance, and “weightedness” of modern dance, the “contemporary abstraction” of Merce Cunningham, the theatrical presentation of Alvin Ailey, and the speed and agility of ballet, to create new movement. According to Jamake Highwater of the Christian Science Monitor, Fagan perceived the stage as a “vast canvas that is persistently and inventively shaped and reshaped by brilliantly conceived entrances and exists, by constantly changing groupings, by the unexpected interactions of solos, duets, trios, and quartets.” As New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff explained, “Mr. Fagan has instilled a suppleness and flexibility in his dancers’ torsos that he combines with straight-limbed extensions, making for a geometric look in his patterns. Contrary to expectation, his dancers are not held close to the ground but are aerial, quicksilver beings, leaping with extraordinary spring or turning with astonishing speed.” Fagan confidently stated in an article by Nancy Small, “Use of space and movement invention, redefining space and form … that’s what l want to do.” By pushing the spatial potential of his art form forward, he pursued his goal of ensuring that this art form resonated with the times— and that it survived.
What ultimately makes Garth Fagan’s dance company important is what Joan Ross Acocella of Dance Magazine defined as Fagan’s “kinetic imagination— the scale of emotional and even philosophical truth that he can locate and illuminate in pure movement.” “I give audiences jagged and raw,” he told Christopher Reardon of the Christian Science Monitor, “but I also give them sleek and traditional.” As Anna Kisselgoff further commented, Fagan’s choreography is “an odd mix of exper-imentalism and accessibility … Sometimes awkward-looking, especially with respect to the dancers’ body placement, but just as often eye-catching, this fusion has an indisputable originality.” In all, Fagan dances are marked by profound expressiveness and unlimited energy.
Fagan used his eclectic, yet groundbreaking style to dazzle his audience with such pieces as “Oatka Trail,” “Of Night, Light & Melanin,” “Postscript Posthumous: Ellington,” “Never Top 40 (Jukebox),” “Traipsing Through The May,” and “Moth Dreams.” As Fagan sought to push the realm of movement, he also explored the rich relationship between movement and music. In the idiom which he created, dance represented a response to, as opposed to an imitation of music.
Certainly, jazz resonated most clearly in Fagan’s work. Throughout his career, though, he adapted music from composers as diverse as Brahms, Dvorak, Puccini, and Philip Glass, as well as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, and Thelonious Monk. In many ways, noted Richard Christiansen of the Chicago Tribune, the dancers serve as “vessels for the music, instruments that exult in and amplify the sounds through their bodies.” As Wynton Marsalis, who has collaborated with Fagan, remarked in an article by Christopher Reardon, “With Garth, the dance becomes a breathing organism inside of the music … What Garth offers is a response to the internal meaning of the music, not just a choreographed translation of the notes.”
Fagan’s style is epitomized by energetic movement rooted primarily in the African and Caribbean traditions. Fagan emphasized to Jamake Highwater, though, that, “I’m interested in ethnicity and not in race.” He, in fact, described himself in a discussion with Barry Laine of the Los Angeles Times as “an artist who happens to be black … as opposed to ’black’ before ’artist’.” He stressed a commitment to maintaining opportunities for African American dancers—because there were simply not enough outlets for them—but always within the framework of a melting pot of cultures which refused to be classified purely as “black art.” It was this cultural emphasis, then, which energized Fagan’s creativity.
One of Fagan’s masterpieces and the epitome of Fagan’s choreography was “Griot New York.” First produced in 1991, “Griot New York” sprung from slavery, the Holocaust, homelessness, and AIDS, from things which disenfranchise humans. And yet concurrently, “Griot New York” represented Fagan’s celebration of the multicultural makeup of New York City, of contemporary urban life, of human anguish and exaltation, of humankind’s triumph over adversity. In West African societies, a griot was a living cultural archivist, a person who transmitted the history of his/her people by means of storytelling, poetry, song, and dance. In turn, the griot interpreted events in terms of their deepest, most enduring values. Fagan’s “Griot New York” embodied this imagery, covering a lot of territory, crossing borders of time, geography, ethnicity, and style in a poetic and nonlinear manner. Told through energies, rhythms, and imagery that suggest rather than describe, this piece engaged, rather than dictated to, the audience.
The work was a collaboration between Fagan, Marsalis, and sculptor Martin Puryear. In keeping with the mood, the music explored the myriad urban sounds of Manhattan. As with all of Fagan’s work, the choreography was a fusion of modern and post-modern idioms, classical ballet, Afro-Caribbean dance, Hispanic, jazz, and ballroom traditions. In this piece, the melding of styles reflected the city’s European past up to the present, telling both the uplifting as well as the more dismal aspects of the story. As analyzed by Los Angeles Times dance writer Lewis Segal, the company’s ability to move effortlessly between these varied dance languages spoke eloquently about African American resilience and formed one of the unifying principles of “Griot New York.”
Most recently, Fagan was commissioned to choreograph the Broadway rendition of The Lion King. While the surface contrasts may seem large, in many ways Fagan’s role with the show made perfect sense. While Fagan’s predominant work has always been with his own company, he also worked with large stage productions, directing and choreographing the first fully staged production of Duke Ellington’s street opera, Queenie Pie, in 1986. Moreover, Lion King director Julie Taymor did not want the traditional Broadway look nor did she wish to duplicate the movie. In seeking to give audiences something other than the usual, Fagan was thus ideally suited for the job.
As might be imagined, working on Broadway presented challenges to the way in which Fagan normally worked. Not only was he working with dancers who had not been educated in the Fagan tradition, but the entire way in which the choreography developed stood in stark contrast to his methodology. As discussed in InTheatre, Fagan had to balance several contrasting elements: his own integrity as a post-modern choreographer with the interests of Broadway audiences; his desire to create complex dance with the realization of the rigors of eight shows per week; and his own developmental style with the forced timeframe of Broadway. For instance, while “Griot New York” emerged gradually over months, there was limited time available to stage and rehearse the dance portions of The Lion King.
Despite the restrictions of Broadway, The Lion King remained true to Fagan’s style. Most obviously, the dance portions draw from a vast range of movement styles. As Fagan explained in InTheatre, “We all wanted the show to be a little more universal than African perse.” Ultimately, Fagan envisioned the show as a complete performance which also made its own artistic statement. “What matters,” he continued in InTheatre, “is that I’m giving audiences a menu of other than the usual. It’s a real moveable feast.” While the story and drama have to progress in dances lasting less than three minutes, “still,” Fagan remarked in a 1997 New York Times article, “you can make a snack as delicious as a three-course meal.”
The spectacular reviews of The Lion King have brought recognition to Fagan from circles far beyond dance sophisticates. And yet, the staying power of his company must also speak highly of the public acceptance of Garth Fagan’s vision of dance. Fagan no longer digs in the “bottom of the bucket,” either for dancers or for followers. He no longer pawns jewelry and silver to provide costumes for his dancers nor pads performances with poetry readings to complete a full evening program, as he once did. Dancers now come to him, studying at his school in the hopes of becoming Fagan dancers. In 1981, in recognition of its progress, Fagan renamed the troupe Garth Fagan’s Bucket Dance then switched to Garth Fagan Bucket Dance. His company, now known simply as Garth Fagan Dance, has received highlyacclaimed recognition and numerous awards: sellout performances, world tours, a Guggenheim fellowship, and guest choreography opportunities with Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, The Jamison Project, American Music Theater Festival, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and the Jose Limon Company. In 1983, Fagan received the National Endowment for the Arts’ coveted three-year Choreography Fellowship, and in 1985, the National Choreography Project supplied a grant for Fagan’s first ballet for Dance Theatre of Harlem. His receipt of SUNY’s prestigious Distinguished Professor Award in 1986 marked the first time that the award was presented for dance.
While success may have altered some of the dynamics of Garth Fagan Dance, the work ethic and dedication demanded by Fagan remain firmly entrenched. For Fagan, dance is his life. Walk into the studio, and one will find no mirrors or barres, staples in most rehearsal studios. Rather, Fagan compelled his dancers to dance “from the inside out … Technique is barren,” he proclaimed to Meg Cox, “unless it’s at the service of the dance.” As he told Teresa Wiltz of the Chicago Tribune, “Choreography consumes me. I have to force myself to turn off the faucet … I am married to dance.”
Fagan, moreover, held his dancers to a regime no less stringent than the one to which he adhered. As a result, “Discipline is freedom” embodied the credo and the ethic of Garth Fagan Dance. Company members were required to participate in two Fagan Technique classes a day, each lasting two hours. Evening class was then followed by rehearsal. Class proceeded in an almost sacred silence. As Fagan describes it, class was designed to exercise every part of the body. Throughout, Fagan blended the physical and intellectual so that his dancers understood why they perform each step. As a result, wrote Elizabeth Kendall in Vogue, his dancers move “as if they were born speaking Fagan’s language and they love the feel of it in their bodies.”
There was little separation between the dancers’ professional and personal lives. In addition to their rigorous schedule of classes, rehearsals, and performances, Fagan also had a list of company requirements: the dancers must attend local concerts, museums, films, and other dance performances and then meet for informal discussions with Fagan. Sometimes Fagan asked his dancers to interpret through movement what they had seen, and he then used images seen in other art forms to explain his choreography.
And yet, despite consuming so much of their lives, few dancers have performed for any other company for as long, and most have danced exclusively with Fagan. In fact, some of the original members of “The Bottom of the Bucket BUT … Dance Theatre” still remain with Garth Fagan Dance. Norwood “P.J.” Pennewell, for example, began dancing with Fagan when he graduated from college. He observed in an interview with Teresa Wiltz that, “[Garth] can be very opinionated and he can be very despotic. There are people who say he’s hard to deal with, but he’s no harder on you than you should be on yourself … [T]he kind of nurturing I’m getting here I wouldn’t get anywhere else … I wouldn’t have gone on to be the person I am today, let alone the dancer, without his guidance.”
The dualities expressed in Fagan’s choreography are hence reflected in his relationship with members of his company. Ultimately, Fagan has always staunchly professed his commitment to the individuality of his dancers, combining this, he told Joan Ross Acocella, with strict discipline “by respecting the awesome physical and spiritual vulnerability that a good dancer has to have.” And, no matter the stage for which he choreographs, Fagan’s intense work ethic coupled with his unique vision of the interplay between music and movement, between dance and dancers, demand that this exploration of the limits of movement and the vast potential of the human body as explored through dance continues. In sum, they ensure that Fagan’s art form will indeed survive.
“From Before,” 1978.
“Oatka Trail,” 1979.
“Of Night, Light, & Melanin,” 1981.
“Touring Jubilee 1924 (Professional),” 1982.
“Postscript Posthumous: Ellington,” 1983.
“Never Top Forty (Juke Box),” 1985.
“Queenie Pie,” 1986.
“Traipsing Through the May,” 1987.
“Time After Before Place,” 1988.
“Telling a Story,” 1989.
“Until, By, & If,” 1990.
“Griot New York,” 1991.
“Moth Dreams,” 1992.
“Draft of Shadows,” 1993.
“Postcards: Pressures and Possibilities,” 1994.
“Earth Eagle First Circle,” 1995.
“Mix 25,” 1996.
“The Lion King,” 1997.
Black Enterprise, August 1985, p. 128.
Chicago Tribune, December 12, 1985, p. 5, 19; April 9, 1987, p. 2, 12; May 6, 1994, p. 13.
Christian Science Monitor, October 28, 1988, p. 23-24; December 10, 1993, p. 17.
Dance Magazine, August 1984, p. 24, 28; July 1985, p. 71-72; March 1986, p. 56-59; November 1987, p. 23, 26; February 1988, p. 38-39; April 1990, p. 16; November 1990, p. 40-43; February 1995, p. 84-85.
InTheatre, reference unknown.
Los Angeles Times, February 5, 1987, p. VI:3; February 7, 1987, p. VI: 1; January 8, 1989, p. C56; January 16, 1989, p. VI:3; October 22, 1993, p. F1, F14; July 22, 1996, p. F5.
Newsweek, November 24, 1997, pp. 70-72.
New York, November 23, 1987, pp. 108-109; December 3, 1990, p. 171; October 19, 1992, p. 124.
New York Times, November 12, 1988, p. A14; November 16, 1989, p. C30; November 19, 1989, p. 1:75; December 1, 1991, p. 2:22; December 6, 1991, p. C3; September 20, 1992, p. 2:2; November 17, 1994, pp. C15-16; February 20, 1995, p. B6; October 19, 1997, p. 29.
Vogue, November 1987, p. 120.
Wall Street Journal, February 4, 1986, p. 29.
Washington Post, October 21, 1989, p. C5; June 11,
1992, p. B2; June 13, 1992, pp. C1-2.
Press Release, Garth Fagan Dance.
—Lisa S. Weitzman