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DANCE: Garth Fagan Dance

Living life on the edge

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On a recent afternoon, Garth Fagan Dance was rehearsing in their Chestnut Street studio, a loft-like space with sumptuous high ceilings, stained glass windows, and lots of light. Fagan presided from behind an old wooden desk, his dark eyes sparkling beneath a black-and-white-striped knit cap. A convivial quiet, accented by the occasional light laugh, filled the studio as the dancers stretched their long, sinewy limbs - a slide down into a full split, a leg pulled straight up against an ear - and marked segments of the pieces they would be rehearsing, going through the steps without fully executing them. Already, the air fairly vibrated with concentration, with intent. Fagan barely needed to raise his voice to gain his dancers' full attention as he called for them to take their places. They were ready to work.

The next morning, the group would fly to Germany to spend the week performing at the Movimentos Festival in Wolfsburg, just outside of Berlin.

"They love us in Germany," Fagan says with a grin. "They're very enthusiastic and very loud. I like that."

Upon its return to Rochester, the internationally acclaimed company will present its spring season at Greece Athena Performing Arts Center this weekend. Athena's show choir will perform in the Saturday matinee, the culmination of Garth Fagan Dance's week-long residency at the school. Students from the GarthFaganDanceSchool will also perform. School director, former dancer, and Bessie Award recipient Natalie Rogers-Cropper choreographed the show choir's piece.

Education, she says, has always been part of Fagan's mission. Fagan agrees, acknowledging the need for educational outreach programs such as theirs.

"We're not educating kids in school anymore. We're not taking them to concerts. We're not taking them anywhere," he says, shaking his head regretfully.

In rehearsal, the dancers ran through several of the pieces scheduled for the Greece performance, starting with "Light," an excerpt from "Life: Dark/Light," choreographed by Fagan in 2005 and set to music by Billy Bang.

The piece begins with Nicolette Depass, a 13-year-veteran of the company, striding confidently from diagonal to diagonal across the stage, her arms swinging naturally, her pace increasing gradually, as if she were crossing midtown Manhattan, anxious to get to a high-powered job.

"See, now, that's a perfectly composed walk," Fagan beamed. "That's beautiful, female. None of that cheap sexuality.Just a woman who's in love with herself and doing her business."

Fagan is an admirer and proponent of women both on and off the stage.

"My women jump with the best of the men, turn as fast as the men. In ballet, in lots of dance, we still see a two-gender society. The men do a jump and then the women do a cutesified jump. Contemporary women don't live like that. Contemporary women are doing anything a man can do. And contemporary men are doing anything a woman can do. We're the 21st century.... Likewise, my men have to be more vulnerable than most men."

Later in "Light," Depass showed zero strain as she masterfully floated a gazelle-like leg into the air while on releve, and then slowly, with steely control, inclined her torso downward while remaining perched on the toes of one foot.

Fagan murmured appreciatively, then confided, "That is impossible to do. She did it in Atlanta and Chicago and the crowd just went wild."

Fagan is quick to point out that his dances do not follow storylines, that they are more abstract. Yet his pieces are rich with emotional meaning. It is almost as if Fagan's choreography, played out through the talent of his formidably trained dancers, communicates Fagan's deeply humanistic approach to life, conveying self-confidence and resilience, invoking strength and compassion, and championing hard work - ideals and qualities that are evident in the rehearsal room as well.

"Edge/Joy," Fagan's 2007 premiere, loosely embraces the struggle and triumph of tackling challenges, of veering from the well-trodden path. To drive the point home, Fagan places much of the piece's movement along the stage's periphery.

"To my experience, lots of the fun things, the great things in life, are at the edge, some of the things that you're not supposed to do," Fagan says. "My daddy didn't want me to be a choreographer or a dancer. I was supposed to get my degree in psychology. But on the edge, I was starting my dance career."

This weekend's evening programs will also include "Prelude," Fagan's classic nod to the intensive work that goes on in the studio classroom; "Talking Drum," a solo from "Senku," choreographed on and performed by the explosive Guy Thorne; "Translation Transition"; "Detail: Down Home Also," an excerpt from "DancecollageforRomie"; and "Touring Jubilee 1924."

Garth Fagan Dance

Greece Athena Performing ArtsCenter, 800 Long Pond Rd.

Friday-Saturday, May 2-3

Fri 8 p.m., Sat 2 & 8 p.m. | $20-$35 | 454-3260, garthfagandance.org

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