The modern dance tree has many branches that spring from the trunk formed by its original pioneers. But few of those offshoots stand out as boldly as Garth Fagan.
The dance maker, probably best known as the Tony-Award winning choreographer for “The Lion King,” is truly unique. And that was clearly evident on Friday night when Garth Fagan Dance performed at Proctors.
Here’s why: His movement is like no other. Yes, there are many choreographers who fuse Afro-Caribbean dance (think Ronald K. Brown) into their work. But Fagan has done it in a way that actually transformed modern dance. Like Martha Graham or Merce Cunningham, only Fagan (and his faithful disciplines) could teach this technique.
Fagan dancers spring straight into the air without any seeming preparation, have iron cores that allow them to bend and sway on one leg and they also can stop, stark still, in mid-momentum.
Also unique to Fagan is the longevity his dancers enjoy. Stephen Humphrey and his washboard abs started with Fagan and company 45 years ago and he’s still dancing.
Natalie Rogers started dancing with Fagan 26 years ago. Then there is Norwood Pennewell, whom Fagan refers to as his muse, who has been dancing with the company since 1978. They still look great.
Lastly, Fagan and dancers have gained worldwide renown from their home base in Rochester. Perhaps the isolation from the New York dance scene fuels his singular artistry.
The secret to Fagan’s mysterious brew is secondary to the joy that its company inspired in audiences on Friday. This joy was furthered heighten by Pennewell’s connection to Schenectady. He grew up here and friends and families were out in force — urging him on with whoops and whistles. And that enthusiasm swept up everyone in a rich and savory program.
It started with “Prelude: Discipline is Freedom.” The dance, dating back to 1981, is a Fagan staple that often opens shows. But it never grows stale. While the costumes (stirrups on the female tights) look dated, the movement is heart pounding. It begins slowly, like a dance class, with dancers spread out doing plies and tendus. And then the percussive sounds of Max Roach break in and bounce off the walls; sending the dancers across the stage in an explosive array of leaps, turns and fancy foot works.
It’s beautiful and invigorating.
The evening had many stunning moments like that. Often, they were aroused by Sade Bully, one of Fagan’s most graceful and generous dancers ever. Her duet with Pennewell in “Spring Yaounde” (an excerpt from “Griot New York”) was memorable for its sensuality and tenderness. With their faces touching, as intimate as a kiss, these two simmered with seductive anticipation.
Bully created the best minutes in Pennewell’s own creation, “So You See,” and the evening’s finale “Come … Celebrate” from Fagan’s “Woza,” which is a high-flying jubilee.
Yet it was Pennewell’s allegiance to the audience that was most notable. Even in the most serious points in a dance, such as in the memorial to Geoffrey Holder “Life, Fete … Bacchanal,” in which Pennewell plays the dying artist, the exuberant audience couldn’t help but make him smile.
And ultimately, we all were smiling, too.