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Thoroughbreds of the performing arts


Outside it was a cold, snowy Rochester night. But inside a quiet Chestnut Street building, the Garth Fagan Dance studio was warm and bustling. A week before the start of its Rochester season, the award-winning company was in the midst of an intense rehearsal schedule. As the dancers trickled in and out of the studio, they alternated between comfortable chatter and physical preparation for their rehearsal under the watchful eye of Garth Fagan.

Now in its 35th anniversary season, a milestone for any modern dance company, Garth Fagan Dance will be offering its hometown audience a mixed bill of three rich programs.

"I wonder how I did it, and I'm very happy and proud that I did it," Fagan says. "It's just a moment of great pride that we made it to 35 years, that we have rave reviews from around the world, and we're doing a great job here at home in our community."

Senior dancer Nicolette Depass, who also teaches at the Garth Fagan Dance School, says, "We are ambassadors for Rochester." The company has toured and performed all over Europe, Asia, and Africa, and gained international attention and critical acclaim.

Success, however, does not come without its struggles, and Garth Fagan Dance has had its share of the problems that consistently plague the arts: lack of funding and the rising cost of tours, for example. But the dancers all foresee Fagan moving strongly into the future.

While the troupe's staying power is a rarity in the modern dance world, it's even more surprising to realize the longevity of Garth Fagan's dancers. With an age range of 21 to 53 years, Fagan shows that he cares not only about expressing his artistic vision but also about his dancers' well being.

"Dancers are incredible," Fagan says, "the thoroughbreds of the performing arts. And they have to be handled like thoroughbreds."

Norwood Pennewell, a senior dancer and rehearsal director, has been with the company for 27 years. "It's really awesome to say I represented one company for that long," he says. "I owe everything, as far as the longevity, to the Fagan technique and how Garth actually nurtures us."

"I got so tired of seeing dance companies with the 30-and-under crowd," Fagan says. "With age you get that maturity, that subtlety, that nuance of movement, that you can't possibly have when you are young. I wanted the same thing in dance, I wanted a community on stage."

The vision of a dance community parallels Fagan's overall artistic philosophy, which he says has only become stronger as the years have passed. Part of this ideal is keeping dancers accessible to the audience. "I wanted the notion of people dancing," he says, "of human beings dancing as opposed to dancers portraying human beings."

Fagan's newest work, Life: Dark/Light, will have its Rochester premier this week. The piece was choreographed to music by virtuosic violinist Billy Bang. Fagan and Bang met at a lecture Fagan gave in Maine, when Bang visited him after the lecture and handed him his CD.

"I put it in my car one day," Fagan says, "and it just hit a nerve."

Bang's music, "Vietnam: The Aftermath," states its theme pretty clearly. Fagan, however, didn't want to focus only on Vietnam or war. He instead created a piece that looks at life more generally.

The piece is broken into three sections. The first section is "just life, pedestrian stuff," Fagan says, "stuff we have to do to live." It features an emotional duet between two young lovers, danced by Guy Thorne and Jihan Palmer, as they gently explore life and love.

The second section is another powerful duet that focuses, this time, on war.

"I wanted to do something that says war is tacky, and I thought I'd look at it from the perspective of a soldier," Fagan says. Pennewell and dancer Bill Ferguson perform in this section. The men dance at opposite ends of the stage, in turn expressing the ecstasies and tragedies a soldier might experience in war.

The third section, by contrast, is a "positive spin on life, just all the positive, beautiful things," Fagan says.

"I wanted it to be ultimately a healing, celebratory piece, but one that was looking at some of the problems, the negatives of life," he says. "I'm very happy with the piece, and proud of it."

Along with Life: Dark/Light, audiences can expect to see a mixture of Fagan's award-winning repertory, including excerpts from his most widely recognized work, Griot New York.

Select students from the Garth Fagan Dance School will perform at the weekend matinees. They will dance in a piece choreographed by Depass and Ferguson, bringing the Fagan style to life in a new generation of dancers.

Garth Fagan Danceperforms through Sunday, December 4 | Nazareth College Arts Center, 4245 East Avenue | Wednesday through Friday 8 p.m., Saturday 2 and 8 p.m., Sunday 2 and 7:30 p.m. | $30-$40 | 389-2170,