Rochesterians are graced by having a dance company with the stature and international reputation of Garth Fagan Dance living and performing in our city. I feel especially privileged at having the ongoing opportunity to annually see fresh work, discuss it with Fagan and his protégé Norwood "P.J." Pennewell, and analyze it through writing. The more I am exposed to the Fagan Technique, the more moved I am at the subtleties and intricacies of Fagan's own particular language of expression through movement. Like re-reading a favorite poet, patterns and delicacies emerge that I had hitherto not noticed. Furthermore, the personality of each of the troupe's dancers -- and their individual personalities and aptitudes, which Fagan astutely highlights -- are springing to the forefront, like hidden patterns zinging out of a Magic Eye book.
Garth Fagan Dance's home season, which took place December 3-8 at Nazareth College Arts Center, brought the presentation of two new pieces -- one choreographed by Fagan and one by Pennewell. I had seen both during the First Niagara Rochester Fringe Festival earlier in the fall, but they were still works in progress then and I was curious to see what changes had been wrought during the intervening three months. I spoke to Fagan the week before the December performances and he assured me that I would find his piece "No Evidence of Failure," originally a solo set on veteran performer Natalie Rogers, more nuanced and tighter.
He told me I would like it. I loved it.
Fagan created the work as a tribute to the "modern woman"; a woman he sees as a loving partner, but also an independent woman of strength. "Women have always had to multitask, but today's woman even more so," Fagan says. "Their lives have become more complex, but Natalie's character embodies that woman who recognizes that she does not come second place."
Fagan refers to his dance company as his "family," and spoke generously about Rogers, whom he considers a daughter. In fact, Fagan lost an infant daughter decades ago, but envisions that she would have grown to become the strong, positive woman he recognizes in Rogers. Rogers began with the company in 1989, worked as Fagan's assistant during his choreographing of Broadway's "The Lion King" that earned Fagan a prestigious Bessie Award, won a Bessie herself for her dancing, and then took seven years off to raise her own daughter. Watching Rogers dance now, one would never guess she had ever left the stage.
As a dancer, Rogers possesses the confidence, technical prowess, and resonating emotional depth that is rare to find in younger dancers. There is an introspective, spiritual quality to her work that seems to stem from some deep inner place of contemplation. Her dancing feels like meditation in motion. Like a yogi, she holds difficult poses for inordinate lengths of time. Yet, even in her stillness there is movement emanating from her body -- limbs, feet, fingers, torso, head all straining outward, outward, casting fine lines of energy. It's like the branches of a tree reaching toward the sun.
The big change in "No Evidence of Failure" since Fringe is the addition of a duet with VitolioJeune, a company member since 2009. Jeune's youthful vitality and unbridled energy provide a welcome juxtaposition to the quieter, more centered energy of Rogers. Before Jeune enters, Rogers appears a sort of modern warrior woman, a force with which to contend. She gazes intently at the audience, works herself into a furor of whirling arm rotations, sharp leg and arm movements and quick leaps before achieving a challenging one-legged pose in which her other leg extends above her shoulder -- usually a position that is only held for a few seconds. This is her work. Only briefly does Rogers ever pause to rest, this in a sweet mimed movement in which she reclines her head onto her cradled arms before jumpstarting back into work mode.
When Jeune enters, Rogers is offstage. He searches for her in a frenzy of passion, all eagerness and testosterone, a constant sheen of sweat flying from his head. Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry" alerts us that they are lovers. She reappears, they embrace and begin a duet delicious in its display of playful passion. The two-decade age difference between the dancers falls away and we see only a couple madly in love.
Jeune is to be commended on his sensual caresses; I shivered when he ran a hand oh-so-lightly down Rogers' thigh. At one point she lays her head in his hands, at another he rests his head on her chest. They are partners, equals. They are there for each other. I especially enjoyed the unique lifts Fagan choreographed for the duet. In one, Rogers has one leg wrapped around Jeune's shoulder and another around his waist as he spins her.
"I tried to make the canoodling as fresh as I could," Fagan says.
Pennewell's third piece for the company, "Gin," has also undergone some changes since it premiered at the Fringe Festival. Like "No Evidence of Failure," it was well received by both audiences and reviewers during the company's annual run at The Joyce Theatre in Manhattan last month. The work, inspired by the mechanical workings of a cotton gin, is tighter now than it had been in September. Still, at 25 minutes it still seemed to run a bit long. Maybe that is part of the point, however; certain phrases of movement that Pennewell describes as "swatches" are introduced and then brought back later in different combinations, much like the variations in a piece of jazz, or the motions of the machine referenced in the piece's title.
I cannot fathom the pressure of having to choreograph for Fagan's company. Pennewell, with the company since 1978, another Bessie winner, and Fagan's rehearsal director, is the only one to have done so besides Fagan himself. But Pennewell meets the challenge. This piece embraces the style of the company but introduces some nice flourishes of his own.
"Gin" is nicely divided into solos, duets, and group performances. I loved the power evoked when he has six or seven dancers emerging suddenly in formation from the wings. On the other hand, his duets are compelling; I liked the pairing of Charity Metzger with Jeune. The solo work of Sade Bully, Shanon Castle, and Nicolette Depass particularly stood out. Pennewell possesses a keen sense of humor. The audience applauded the slightly ribald nature of the section with Jeune, Winton Rice, and Anjue David in their show of playful competition and friendly ribbing as they challenged each other to jump higher and turn faster. Pennewell is finding his footing as a choreographer.