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Flash Review 1, 10-31: Concerto in Spirit
Fagan and Dancers Whirl into the Joyce

By Sandra Aberkalns
Copyright 2001 Sandra Aberkalns

NEW YORK -- Confession, so they say, is good for the soul. Well, I have to admit that on nights when I'm reviewing a concert I really don't mind going alone -- I like to listen to the conversations going on around me. Opinions expressed by audience members can be very intuitive and informative. However, last night a comment made about Garth Fagan Dance left me a little befuddled. As two women were making a bee-line for the exit, during the second intermission, one of them was saying, "This is very morose -- no spirit."

The Joyce Theater will be host to Garth Fagan Dance for 13 more performances, and believe me when I say this company has plenty of spirit for the entire run.

No dance company survives for 31 years without spirit. Garth Fagan, founder and artistic director of the company has a wall full of awards which his peers have given him to honor his spirit (among them a Tony Award for best choreography for his contribution to the Broadway show "The Lion King"). Half of the current company members (including Mr. Fagan) are Bessie Award winners. How much more spirit can one company have?

The first work of the evening, "Prelude: Discipline is Freedom" is the modern counterpart to the ballet "Etudes" by Harald Lander. While "Etudes" displays the style and schooling of a ballet company, "Prelude" is Fagan's tribute to his dancers. This work acknowledges the joy in mastering a technique and the inherent freedom when one has mastered the craft. That these dancers are masters of their bodies was obvious the moment Norwood Pennewell stepped onto the stage. I was very impressed that whenever the dancers came down from a jump they were like cats landing on soft sand, and no matter how quickly they were moving not a breath was to be heard. If I'm crediting the wrong dancer for the following incredible double-take moment I apologize, but I do believe it was Aisha Benjamin. In the downstage right corner of the stage, I watched her do a developpe a la second with the left leg while in a demi-plie (and on demi-pointe) on the right leg. I was then distracted by some other dancers more animated in their movement, and when I happened to look back to that side of the stage Ms. Benjamin was still there with the leg as high as it was before, and still balancing on demi-pointe! It was such a subtle moment (and movement) that I don't think many in the audience realized how difficult it really was. Hats off to whoever it was! The movement, especially when the dancers were travelling diagonally across the stage, alternated, without warning, between focused precision and relaxed free flow. The dancers moved effortlessly between these two dynamics, showing their skill both collectively and individually. The final blackout capturing Mr. Pennewell in a jump in mid-air was truly inspired.

Excerpts from "Never Top 40 (Juke Box)" didn't quite do it for me as I couldn't sense the common thread which bound these dances together, but that's the risk a choreographer takes when sections of a larger work are taken out of context. However, Natalie Rogers's solo "Dance Psalmody 69" was riveting. When the solo begins, Ms. Rogers is in the upstage right corner and one can actually feel the walls of a cathedral rising around her -- walls of spiritual and physical strength support her. Then she moves to the downstage left corner of the stage. Now, a person in the front row of the audience could reach out and touch her if they chose to, and suddenly she has become very vulnerable. The energy/dynamic she exerts in her movement has not changed and yet, this simple displacement on the stage has changed everything.

"In Memoriam: The Innocent, The Brave, The Hands, The Minds, All Mankind" is dedicated to the victims and survivors of September 11, 2001. My understanding is that it is a reworked section of a 1998 dance. As I'm not familiar with the original work, I don't know what choreographic changes Mr. Fagan made. The title alone makes this work a very visceral experience. How your brain interprets the movement/shapes made by the dancers on the stage will tell you a lot about how your psyche was branded that day.

While the opening and closing sections of "Music of the Line/Words in the Shape" were colorful and fun, it was the middle section that caught my attention. The simplicity and clarity in the lines of the movement were beautiful, but that wasn't the only charm of the passage; it was the way the dancers actually held a position long enough or were moving slowly enough that your brain could create a frame around each moment. It was also fascinating to see how Fagan created distinct moods for each trio without dramatically changing the type of movement done by the different groups. The first group (Rogers, Pennewell, and Chris Morrison) was like water -- one movement flowed into the other with the dancers flowing over each other. The second trio (Sharon Skepple, Nicolette Depass, and Bill Ferguson) consisted of two women who were like the eye of the hurricane with the man representing the chaos on the outer edges. The final image of this trio was that of a storm that had spent all of its energy and was left to simply rotate on itself. The last trio (Steve Humphrey, Joel Valentin, and Erin Burnett) was very distant -- they are together physically but not emotionally.

The last piece of the evening was titled "Woza," which is Zulu for "Come." I loved the opening section, "Come Prepared" with Sharon Skepple. Ms. Skepple was simply enchanting in this solo. To me, the image that came to mind was that of a runner preparing for a marathon. When she flashes her pearly whites over her shoulder at the audience, it is as though she has appraised her competition and knows they are wanting. Her jetes on the diagonal are to show everyone her prowess. Her taunt to the audience is "come" follow me if you can!

As much as I was enthralled by the duo of Rogers and Pennewell throughout the evening, I really can't praise their duet "Come Forever." Personally, the music was driving me crazy. One more perfect fifth and I would have been on my knees begging for mercy. Their performance was toeing the line so closely I couldn't figure out if this pas de deux was tongue in cheek or if it really was meant to be sincere. For me it was a Hallmark moment gone bad.

Speaking of music, there is something for everyone: John Adams, Keith Jarrett, and Lebo M, to name just a few.

One final thought about spirit. At the end of the concert Garth Fagan came on stage to take a bow with the company. He was given a bouquet of flowers. He immediately reached into the bouquet, pulled out a rose, and tossed it gently into the audience. No, THANK YOU Mr. Fagan.

Garth Fagan Dance runs through November 11. For more information, please visit the Joyce web site.

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