After 33 years of writing about them, it's difficult to find a new way to describe Garth Fagan Dance. Yet, though the dances are always definably Fagan's, they are newly inventive. Fagan adds unique work every year. How difficult must it be to achieve that level of creativity?
The performances are equally remarkable. Fagan's very personally trained dancers are now recognized worldwide as an ensemble of astounding virtuosos. The company's two top female dancers, Bessie Award Winners Natalie Rogers and Sharon Skepple, are on leaves of absence, but junior women have moved up to leading roles with much aplomb. Senior males, looking impossibly younger than they are, continually improve their technical and interpretive strengths. And, for once to use our young folks' sloppily understood term of approval accurately, the young guys in this company are awesome.
We saw all that when Garth Fagan Dance and the Wynton Marsalis Septet recombined for a gala performance of their collaborative masterpiece, Griot New York. Marsalis won't be available for the spring tour of Griot, but most of the same artists who played it at Eastman Theatre in September 1993 joined many of the same dancers at Eastman in September 2003 for one sold-out, glorious reunion performance.
Excepts from Griot began the company's opening night at Nazareth Arts Center last week. Martin Puryear's monumental sculptures and C. T. Oakes' stunning lighting look better on Eastman's large stage, and the dancers had to interact with a recording, not live musicians. But it is clearly a masterpiece, and would not be outclassed if these dancers performed it as a special guest entry on any dance company's program anywhere.
Viewers and critics have remarked on the extraordinary new life that Norwood Pennewell and Nicolette Depass bring to the sensual, topless love duet, Spring Yaounde. Pennewell looks even more perfectly sculptured now than when he created the dance a decade ago. Depass joins him in an embrace that expresses both essential sexual attraction and an almost complete loss of separate identity. They move as one sinuous organism. Depass has clearly achieved star status. This season she is joined by Keisha Laren Clarke and Jin Ahn in must-see performances of major roles.
The new work, DanceCollageforRomie, is inspired by and dedicated to Fagan's friend, the Harlem Renaissance artist Romare Bearden, a pioneer in the art of collage. It is worthy of its subject. The "collage" includes props by Fagan, costumes by Mary Nemecek Peterson, scenic pieces by Diana Shailer, and lighting effects by Oakes which make reference to Bearden's art. But don't expect a literal re-creation: One of the work's many accessible and appealing qualities is Fagan's choice of disparate but equally lovely music to gather and attach loosely in this collage.
Starting with basics, "Matter and Materiel" pastes daringly long-held poses and balances by one or two dancers onto group movements. Its many contrasts include Fagan's trademark unexpected shifts from stillness or crouches to dramatic extensions and jumps, and statue-like groupings, especially in couples: Depass with Ahn, Bill Ferguson with Kevin Ormsby, and Steve Humphrey with a rubber snake.
You'd expect that last to be funny, but it's a reference to a favorite Bearden image, and an exciting contrast to the lyrical women and potent men. In this dance as in this company, Humphrey seems an unquenchable life force, here struggling with another. It has been noted, too, that the company's fast-rising Guy Thorne dazzlingly thrusts in and out of comparatively placid stage pictures created by the more stately groups of the ensemble, paralleling the piano solo versus orchestra in this excerpt from Shostakovich's "Piano Concerto No. 1."
I'm told that the second section, "Detail: Down Home Also," reflects a detail from a Beardsley collage owned by Fagan and currently on loan to the National Gallery in Washington, DC. It's a very complex, deeply felt duet, less sensual than Spring Yaounde but no less sexy. Its passionate thrusts are the gorgeous Keisha Clarke's sudden leaps onto or above her partner, Pennewell, who receives her as if by reflex and helps her reach upward in mutual aspiration.
I know Villa-Lobos' exquisite "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5"as sung by Bidu Sayao and subsequent sopranos, even Joan Baez, with orchestra. But this version substitutes saxophonist Branford Marsalis, and the haunting wordless vocalise is transmuted to a sustained, pensive jazz sound. Fagan here realizes it perfectly in dance.
The finale is predictably up-tempo. Conjur Man is set to Jelly Roll Morton's "Jungle Blues" as recorded by the Branford Marsalis Quartet. It provides a joyous group finale with the usual high jinks that showcase a dance company's energy and virtuosity and get an encore of its climactic section. Fagan, as always, shapes the dance and stage pictures and overall effect to fit his special purposes: Here he offers sly props and movements to make allusions to Bearden's work and has Oakes collaborate to focus on thematic couples and groupings.
I haven't mentioned Michelle Hebert, William Brown, and Momo Sanno, the newest folks, who all look wonderful. Sanno is especially striking in his distinctive way of attacking movement. And, for whatever reason, the company's great Chris Morrison appeared only in the final dance, a repeat of last year's Translation Transition.