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Every move with precision: Garth Fagan Dance.

Garth Fagan Dance
By Mae G. Banner

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 29

Garth Fagan’s dancers move in startling and satisfying ways. They can do a jagged leap and land like velvet, or balance endlessly on one long leg till they leave you gasping for breath, then erupt in a burst of speed that carries them off the stage.

Thirty-five years ago, long before he won worldwide fame for choreographing The Lion King, Fagan founded a dance company that would speak his distinctive movement language. Aug. 29 at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the Garth Fagan Dance company danced a generous program of five works that spanned more than two decades of the master’s ideas.

The music ranged from a Brahms sonata to piano jazz by Jelly Roll Morton, from Villa Lobos to Jamaican reggae to the soaring horns of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The mood varied from a duet of unrequited love to a flirty, high-stepping Saturday-night romp. It was all wonderful.

The show began with Prelude: Discipline Is Freedom, an ensemble dance to the textured jazz of Abdullah Ibrahim and Max Roach that presents a primer of Fagan’s dance language. By ones and twos, and then in groups, the 13 dancers displayed all the elements that make Fagan’s dances so unusual and so right: the slow pivot on one flat foot, the forward bend into a table-top and the rippling of the back, one vertebra at a time, the rubbery, whirling arms, the African-based isolations of shoulders and hips, and those amazing balances. These dancers glow, and then they flame.

Sonata and the Afternoon, set to Brahms, brought Kevin Moore and Nicolette Depass into a slow recognition of their love. Two tall figures in period dress, they held hands at arms’ length and swung their bodies out in quiet desperation, turning faster and faster until the tension split them and they parted.

In giddy contrast, Touring Jubilee 1924 (Professional) was all vinegar and pepper. Even the costumes were giggly—flower- printed calico dresses and flirty hats for the women, white pants and red socks for the men. Five couples, country coquettes and dandies, met on the dance floor, kicking high and jiggling their butts to the burnished brass of the Preservation Hall band. Trucking and jiving, rocking to the banjo, Jubilee had sass right to the personality-packed curtain calls.

The peak of the evening was DANCECOLLAGEFORROMIE, Fagan’s homage to the great collagist of Harlem life, Romare Bearden. To a musical collage of Shostakovich, Villa Lobos and Jelly Roll Morton, Fagan presented the colors and characters, the very architecture of Bearden’s urban scenes.

The dancers be gan in black unitards with patches of red or yellow. After ingenious exits and entrances that made the ensemble of 13 seem twice that number, they ap peared in high-toned suits or flowing skirts in shades of red. They moved in clusters or as individuals, always left to right across the field of vision, their bodies pasting in the bits of the grand collage.

We got a good look at those rubbery moving arms, the broken-leg leaps, the neighborhood characters, like Steve Humphrey as the Conjur Man with a long, green snake, or the man who walked with two canes as if they were stilts, his legs high off the ground. The central duet by Norwood Pennewell and Depass was a tender, fractured portrait of grownup love that weathers hardship. She leapt onto his back with one leg jutting away at an impossible, beautiful angle, and he held her there, then laid her down gently to recline against a pillow where he joined her in repose.

For the final section of Collage, the dancers brought in the props, side-stepping behind a sturdy red brick wall or swooshing in a cut-paper railroad train. Shimmying and strutting, they flew the wall across the stage and the wall seemed to carry them with it. Three women stood one behind another to make a sculptural shape, their arms raying out. The Snake Man slid by. The Stilt Man plied his canes. Everyone froze in three clusters to create the final tableau—a neighborhood and a world.

The crowd-pleasing closer was Translation Transition to music by the Jazz Jamaica All Stars, a brass band with hot drums and a steady reggae beat overlaid with 1940s jazz. True to Fagan’s aesthetic of contrast, dancers would move in slow motion while the music raced, or trade off their time-defying balances with one-foot spins and jerky kicks. Sure and controlled, they made every sharp line count.

Translation was smooth, never frantic, loose, but controlled, with the beat deep down in it. It finished with an easy strut that crowded the stage with leg-thrusting, shoulder-swiveling groups, so joyous that the crowd clapped the beat while the dancers did it all over again as a rousing curtain call.


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