Garth Fagan was speaking of "chicken and fish."
No, the choreographer wasn't discussing food, but the recipe for his eponymous troupe's distinctive dance style.
"It's like chicken and fish," he said in comparing the manner of Garth Fagan Dance to other successful companies, such as Alvin Ailey's American Dance Theatre. "Ailey's technique is very ballet-oriented, and while I use the speed and ballon [lightness] of ballet, my emphasis is more on the use of the lower back and curved, broken lines."
Indeed, spectators at this weekend's performances by the company at the Columbia Festival of the Arts will plainly see elements of African and Caribbean dance as well as stylistic nods to Martha Graham and Jose Limon, two of Mr. Fagan's mentors.
The blending of cultural dance motifs with a modern sensibility has long been a trademark for this 20-year-old company that first performed under the unlikely name of Bottom of the Bucket, BUT . . . Dance Theatre. Mr. Fagan, who hails from Jamaica, first tasted the fruits of dance when he joined Ivy Baxter and the Jamaican National Dance Company for a whirlwind tour of South America. A 16-year-old interested in gymnastics, he recalls being drawn to the company because, "I wanted to see the world." His cosmopolitan attitude was enlarged when he studied with Pearl Primus and Lavinia Williams, then later in New York City with Graham, Limon, Mary Hinkson and Ailey.
Today he adheres to the belief that "knowing more about the world and taking it into your consciousness gives you the criteria with which to make [choreographic] decisions." Columbia festival-goers will get the chance to see those decisions played out at a free master class and a lecture demonstration tomorrow, as well as at performances Saturday night and Sunday where Mr. Fagan will spotlight four works that span his more than 40-year career.
"Oatka Trail," part of the company's repertoire since 1979, is one of the choreographer's favorite works. Named after the Seneca Indian trail that winds its way near Mr. Fagan's home in upstate New York, and set to music by Dvorak, the dance reflects his interest in American Indian culture.
"The stupidest dance I ever choreographed," is how he characterizes his comedic and vaudevillian "Touring Jubilee 1924." Set to music by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the dance "serves to clear the palate" he said, for the main course of the evening, "Until, By and If," created last fall and termed "UBI" for short. Mr. Fagan says the work is "disturbing," both in its subject matter and in technique. "It deals with dysfunctional and destructive relationships, the breakdown of family structure and society. It is concerned with the emotional underpinnings of relationships. My couples do have a little hope. They are motivated by care and love for one another and eventually they wake up and take that responsibility."
The evening will open with the "Prelude," a work like Martha Graham's "Acrobats of God" in that it is basically a primer of Mr. Fagan's technique.
"Because my movements are idiosyncratic, I think it's good to show them to people so they aren't startled when they see the dancers later on," he explained. "It also introduces the dancers to the audience, so they can pore over them and get to know them."
Garth Fagan Dance
Master class, demonstration: Slayton House, noon and 3 p.m. tomorrow. Free but tickets required.
Performances: Wilde Lake High School, 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday. $16 ($8 for students).