Garth Fagan has for nearly 50 years been re-imagining and reinventing modern dance. And now, Fagan and his dancers are pushing their own boundaries by pioneering new works that encourage audiences to look at cultural and societal issues through the lens of movement.
That is most evident in Fagan's latest piece, "Estrogen/Genius," which made its Rochester premiere Wednesday night at the Nazareth College Arts Center. The dance seems to be a commentary on the struggles of a modern woman's life: business, fear, and at times, oppression. It's a stylistic departure from Fagan's signature works, set to a cappella group Naturally 7's "Run Away" and "Rhapsody of the Queen," and their version of Coldplay's "Fix You." And although the piece feels more contemporary, it is deeply rooted by Fagan's classic technique and timing.
The work began with longtime Garth Fagan dancer Natalie Rogers walking on stage casually before swiftly hunching over as if an invisible hand had pushed her down. She then darted backwards, running in circles before leaping forward and landing on relevé, balancing ever so delicately. She was later joined by the company's four other female dancers — all relatively recent additions to the group — and they all contorted their bodies into hunched spins before suddenly shooting upward in gracefully executed split leaps. In the softer moments, the women lean on one another for strength.
Also debuting at the Nazareth show was Norwood Pennewell's latest work, "Wecoo Duende," which tells the story of how a community responds to an alluring "spirit." Audiences got a sneak peek of this work — in progress — at the Rochester Fringe Festival, and it's only gotten better. The ensemble mixes smooth pirouettes with warrior-like lunges and percussively crisp footwork.
The pounding drumbeats of the first song gave way to softer, gentler mandolin music for a duet with dancers Vitolio Jeune and Adriene Hodge, who partner together beautifully. Jeune lifts Hodge with such ease it's as if she's floating into his arms. The two also find small moments to smile at one another — their joy is infectious. Their arms and legs gracefully intertwined with one another like gentle waves coming ashore.
The dance returns to its original tribal style, with the group moving deliberately in and out of sync with one another. One dancer bends so far backward while staying on his feet, it puts "The Matrix" to shame. The group once again circles around Rogers, their arms flailing more and more frantically as the music speeds up.
"In Conflict" (2016) is a relatively new addition to the group's repertoire, and features solos by Rogers and Jeune before they come together for a duet. Their torment in their respective solos is palpable, punctuated by sharp movements and strong, clean lines.
The show is not just about new works. Many Fagan fans will appreciate the newer dancers' takes on Fagan's classic choreography in "Prelude" (originally created in 1983). The dancers appear to be warming up and stretching before progressing to gravity-defying leaps and endless barrel turns across the diagonal on the stage. And it's almost impossible not to find yourself bouncing along with the dancers during the joyously party-like "Translation Transition."
Each show at Nazareth features a slightly different lineup, including different works by Fagan and Pennewell throughout their many years with the group. Saturday and Sunday's matinees will feature a new work by Garth Fagan's student ensemble.
Garth Fagan Dance will perform Friday, December 1, and Saturday, December 2, at 8 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday, December 2 and 3, at 2 p.m. Tickets range from $40 to $55 and can be purchased by calling 389-2170 or online at boxoffice.naz.edu. Information about each different program is available online. The show is appropriate for all ages.