His dances pull a world together


SINCE childhood, choreographer Garth Fagan has feasted upon the world as a place of artistic revelation and cultural cross-pollination.

His vision is deep in his dance technique, one that lights a new territory where ballet, African, Afro-Caribbean and modern dance fuse and recombine in astonishing ways.

Fagan's language and corresponding technique "evolved out of a need I had to try to push the art form forward, to do something to create movement and spacial situations that I hadn't seen addressed before in concert dance," Fagan says.

The Garth Fagan Dance company comes to the Columbia Festival of the Arts Friday through Sunday with a master class, a lecture/demonstration and two performances.

Spectators will find that Fagan has tossed the staid conventions of classical dance, but kept the speed, height and gravity-smashing capabilities of ballet dancers to linger in the air.

The polyrhythms of his native Jamaica, and the energy and motion of African dance also define Fagan's choreography, as do the legacies of modern masters Martha Graham, Jose Limon, Alvin Ailey and others.

"One of the responsibilities of good artists is to bring information that they know first hand to the work," Fagan says during a telephone interview. "While ballet has been here for 400 years, my experience is as a Caribbean man who was around for 30 years when I started. These rhythms were inside of me."

Although Fagan can cite numerous examples of African and Caribbean dance presented in its "tribal, fabulously dressed original state," he believes that cultural bias has previously prevented these dance forms from becoming part of the vocabulary of contemporary dance.

"No one was paying attention to the wonderful movement source that we had here to be abstracted and to be presented devoid of ritual or meaning," Fagan says.

Fagan's dances address a wealth of subjects, including AIDS, relationships, the star syndrome, nature, social, sexual and racial issues. It is also distinguished by his eclectic use of music, from Brahms to reggae to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. One critic speaks of Fagan's "exceptional musicality, which never allows him simply to supplement the emotional impact of the music or merely to articulate the obvious cadences."

"I owe it all to my parents, Webster and Louise," says Fagan of his musical sense. "Now, as I look back on it, they gave me a first class musical education. They were both musicians. Both played piano and the organ for Methodist church choirs. . .the records were around the house, the radio was always on, there were debates as to Duke Ellington versus Count Basie. . .I got the passion from them."

Fagan was also "trotted off at a tender age" to concerts where greats like Paul Robeson, Jascha Heifetz and Lily Pons performed. Though at first he squirmed and fussed, there came a time when "unbeknownst to me, I was being punished by not going," Fagan says.

Using the same disciplined, paternalistic approach his parents took with him -- his father was chief of education of the island of Jamaica -- Fagan has molded his dancers from an inexperienced group of young Rochester dance students, several of whom have been with his troupe since it was formed 21 years ago, into a potent artistic force.

Fagan's technique, carefully forged through observation and experimentation, has endowed his dancers with the strong, supple lower backs needed to bear the weightedness of modern dance, as well as the ability to "move in any direction, including up into the air, at any speed, without any preparation."

Again reaping the lessons of his parents, Fagan has profound respect for his dance elders. "In anything you do, you have to have a good sense of the history, the traditions of the art form, so you know where you fit, where you're similar and where you're unusual. I get very impatient and very tired of people who have no respect for their forebears and the masters like Graham, Ailey and Joffrey."

Fagan's is a thinking company, where individuality and brains are prized and the "shut up and dance" mentality is scorned. In addition to a rigorous, old-school schedule of classes and rehearsals, he requires his dancers to attend plays, movies and poetry readings, and pads their world-wide tours with time to absorb museums, architecture and other cultural attractions.

At his Rochester home, where he often cooks up savory meals for company members, Fagan says, "My dancers give me the same company requirements. . .they're keeping me abreast of things that are important."

Within the company, Fagan maintains a 50-50 balance between dancers with formal educations and those with "street smarts." It is "a wonderful mix and a wonderful dialogue," Fagan says.

Fagan, in his early 50s, first toured as a teen-ager in Latin America with Ivy Baxter and the Jamaican National Dance Company. Later, he studied with Graham, Limon, Ailey, Pearl Primus, Lavinia Williams and Mary Hinkson.

After a stint with the Dance Theater of Detroit, Fagan made his way in 1969 to Rochester, where as a professor at the state University of New York, he started teaching at the Educational Opportunity Center. In the unpolished collection of inner-city youth who arrived for class, Fagan saw the potential for an energetic and groundbreaking company.

Fagan has been duly honored for his choreography, as has the troupe for its spectacular performances. In 1987, Fagan received a $100,000 grant from the Eastman Kodak Company. In 1990, Fagan, along with Eliot Feld and Hanya Holm, won Dance Magazine's award for "significant contributions to dancing during distinguished careers."

Fagan has also created dances for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Judith Jamison and her disbanded Jamison Project, and directed and choreographed the first full staging of Duke Ellington's opera "Queenie Pie."

Garth Fagan Dance will conduct a master class at noon Friday at Slayton House in Columbia. At 3 p.m. on Friday, Fagan and his troupe will also present a lecture/demonstration, also at Slayton House. Admission is free but tickets are required for both events.

Garth Fagan Dance performs 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Wilde Lake High School. Tickest are $16; $8 for students. For information, call 381-0545 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

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