Arts & Entertainment » Dance

Garth Fagan is building a mecca


Maybe you can come home again.

            In 1991, three acknowledged masters --- choreographer Garth Fagan, musician Wynton Marsalis, and sculptor Martin Puryear --- collaborated on an evening-long work, Griot New York. The premiere at Brooklyn Academy received rave reviews, as did the international performances. The artists' schedules didn't permit Fagan to bring the work home to Rochester until September 1993, when we regarded it as a glorious, once-in-a-lifetime event.

            Well, it seems we will have another chance: the artists are bringing a gala anniversary performance of GriotNew York to our own Eastman Theatre this Saturday, September 6.

            The concert is incredibly rich, synthesizing African traditions and American contemporary culture, told from the point of view of a "griot," or a historian who passes on the wisdom, traditions, and history of a society.

            I asked Fagan, our griot, about this reunion performance.

City:What started this revival?

            Fagan: Honestly, I do not know. Mostly the chance to work with Wynton. Besides being a genius, he's a lovely person.

City: Do you expect changes in the work?

            Fagan: Oh, I'm sure. One major change is that Sharon Skepple won't be dancing the role she created, because she's pregnant. Keisha Clarke will dance Sharon's role. Keisha is a tall, beautiful dancer. The music she'll dance to in Griot is new to her. She's young and doesn't know jazz. But Keisha will be fabulous.

City: What other new dancers are there?

            Fagan: Tina [Valentina Alexander] did the original love duet, but the girl who'll be doing that, Nicolette Depass, is a freer spirit. Just wait till you see her.

            Guy Thorne is new to Griot --- small and sexy, beautiful dancer. He's more internalized than most are at that young age. And we've got a new girl, Michelle [Hebert]. Another redhead, you know my penchant for redheads. Another beautiful dancer, Momo [Sanno], is from Rumania. I met him in Hamburg.

City: And no doubt the original dancers will have grown in the roles.

            Fagan:I like the look of the company now. They've all grown and experienced more of life. The seniors, PJ [Norwood Pennewell] and Natalie [Rogers], are just amazing. They are inspirational to the younger kids. I say to Guy [Thorne], 'You see what [Pennewell's] body can do at 42? You see why I want more out of you at 23?'

City: How about Steve [original company member Steve Humphrey, now 51]?

            Fagan: Of course! You can't stop him. I told him, 'Whatever you don't want to do, let me know, Steve.' And he's out there doing everything.

City: Any changes in the Marsalis Septet?

            Fagan: Wynton's will be pretty much the same group, except the pianist is new. But everybody else will have done it with us, and on tour, and none of us can wait. Because it's a mutual admiration society. When PJ does the slavery solo, Wynton plays all kinds of wicked games with him.

            And you have to remember that Griot was the first piece that Wynton composed for dance. So it was a learning curve for him. Now, after Griot, he's now done pieces for New York City Ballet, Twyla Tharp, Judy Jamison...

City: You're using the same great pieces by Puryear?

            Fagan: Of course. And we'll tour with them. They were designed for touring, and we took them as far as Australia.

City: This concert is a fundraiser?

            Fagan: Yes, and this time of year in Rochester everybody is away, so we're getting a little scared. But we're pushing the hat, and we'll see what happens. The last time we did it Wynton performed for free, but this time his financial situation is not as good, so I wouldn't dare ask him for that.

            But it will be a nice kickoff for the Rochester arts season. We hope people will come.

City: How about your future plans?

            Fagan: We have a premiere to get ready for in New York. But restoring this Griot has been so rewarding. It's a full, rich experience. Lots of the full- evening works you get in dance are so hammy and so full of acting as opposed to dancing. But [in Griot] they dance from start to finish.

City: Any more shows after "Lion King?"

            Fagan: Well, there's one, but we've had to put it on hold because of the financial situation. And I've turned down a few things, like Man of La Mancha, because I want to do something entirely new and original. I don't want to do schtick. But the kind of sets I want to use, and the kind of space I want for dance, is revolutionary and costly.

City: Tell me about your local theater project.

            Fagan: We're still struggling to get our theatre built here. Our plan is to have a dance season, and I know enough people in jazz and other forms that we could keep it active with cutting-edge stuff.

            We could do a longer dance season, and then bring in dance companies, and jazz, and it could become a mecca. After all, now that we're going to have this grand ferry, it will be crowded for Toronto, but why are they coming here? What are people going to come here to see?

Griot New York will be performed on Saturday, September 6, at the Eastman Theatre, 26 Gibbs Street, at 7:30 p.m. Tix: $20-$65, 232-1900. For more information about Garth Fagan Dance, visit