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Precision moves: Garth Fagan Dance.

From the Inside
By Mae G. Banner

Garth Fagan Dance

The Egg, April 22

All the glories displayed in nGarth Faganís newest dances are laid out for the audience in Preludeó Discipline is Freedom (1981), which opened the companyís transcendent program last Friday at the Egg.

Prelude works as a primer for the audience and a stamina-builder for Faganís 13 ravishing dancers, filled as it is with an increasingly textured set of signature moves: heads moving side to side, arms whirring like winches, bends, contractions, balances on one leg, visibly rippling vertebrae, cakewalk promenades with high-arched chests followed by gazelle-like jetes.

Solo phrases build to unison progressions, set to the piano jazz of Abdullah Ibrahim and the intelligent drumming of Max Roach. Dancers change on the instant from gravity-bound Afro-Caribbean steps to long-limbed ballet stretches and back again. The structure is clear and always exciting.

Faganís vocabulary is like no other. In 1970, he envisioned a company that would dance his velvety choreography composed of torso-centered modern dance energy, rooted traditional moves, and balletic lines that are breathtakingly soaring, but deliberately skewed. His dancers work in a studio with no mirrors. They create shapes from the inside out.

Fagan doesnít alter this vocabularyówhy would he?óbut, he experiments by applying it to longer, sometimes programmatic works that are inspired by unusual music or the work of visual artists he admires. The major pieces in Fridayís generous program were two three-part suites: DancecollageforRomie (2003), a kinetic response to the collages of Romare Bearden, and Translation Transition (2002), an exuberant party to music by Jazz Jamaica All Stars.

Like the dance, the music for Romie is a collage. Part One, an intentionally disconnected display of the materials to be used, has dancers crouching or spinning to the circusy music of Shostakovichís Piano Concerto No. 1. Each dancer enacts his or her own phrase, like a circus troupe warming up before showtime. Dancers make elaborate bows with their ankles crossed in front and their arms crossed behind. Steve Humphrey (at 52, an original company member) threads through, carrying a green balloon shaped like a snake. Two women make a push-me, pull-you creature as the trumpets flare.

The amorous music of Villa-Lobos suffuses the duet by Norwood Pennewell and Keisha Clarke that follows, called Detail:Down Home. Also, it mirrors images from Beardenís work. Clarke jumps straight up into Pennewellís arms and then somehow fastens onto his back with one leg straight up and the other jutting out at a stunning angle. These two are flamingoes or giraffes, or gods who touch foreheads in love and mutual respect, then lie down together.

Part Three, Conjur Man, to Jelly Roll Mortonís ďJungle BluesĒ (performed by Branford Marsalis on his recorded tribute to Bearden) recapitulates the moves and props introduced in the opening part. Now Pennewell is a trickster in a ringmasterís red jacket, moving across the stage, legs twittering to the nasty sound of a trombone. All Faganís favorite moves combine into new and startling group shapes that split off and recombine in three face-forward chunks, the bright-colored parts reproducing segments of Beardenís collage.

On a smaller scale, Nicolette Depass danced a pleading solo, Dance Psalmody 69 (1985) to the singing of countertenor Alfred Deller. In total contrast, Clarke, Bill Ferguson, and Sharon Skepple led the company in Touring Jubilee 1924 (Professional) (1982), in which all the women are sassy, all the men know how to shimmy, and the mood is purely exuberant. Music by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is a perfect accompaniment to the cakewalks and Charlestons of these flirty couples.

The closing dance, Translation Transition shows the essence of Faganís aesthetic. The dancers take each move and play it out as far as it will go, and then further. They develop arm and leg extensions slowly, smoothly, intently, elastically, culminating in extravagant balances. They may look off-center, but itís clear they are centered in themselves.

Fast and slow, high and low moves butt up against each other. Groovy hip action goes with slackly swinging arms. The power of unison passages blows through the group like a windstorm in a wheatfield. Itís a demanding workout and an unabashed good timeóso good, the audience gave the troupe a standing ovation and demanded and got a reprise of the last swinging section as an encore.

Note: Faganís dancers, like no other troupe Iíve seen, always come out to the lobby to meet the audience one-on-one. Dancers come up and shake your hand, introduce themselves by name, and ask where youíre from. Their graciousness, part of Faganís training, has made friends of audiences worldwide. As if their dancing werenít enough.


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