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Flash Review 1, 11-18: Springboks and Gazelles

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2003 Gus Solomons jr

NEW YORK -- Garth Fagan Dance, now in its 33rd season, has returned to the Joyce Theater for two weeks (November 11 - 23). Artistic director/guru Fagan remains based in Rochester, NY, where he began his troupe with dancers he had trained virtually from scratch into streamlined motion machines. Eschewing the modern dance trendiness of New York City, he shaped his unique voice and vision of African-American dance from such sources as Martha Graham, Lester Horton, martial arts, yoga, and his Jamaican roots.

Fagan's electrifying dancers and unusual choreographic structures thrilled his concert audiences, but his award-winning choreography for Julie Taymor's "The Lion King" on Broadway made him a household name. The financial success of that smash hit and a subsequent MacArthur ("genius") grant have given him and his company the solvency to develop their art.

The enormous jumps, treacherous off-center balances, and whirling spin that characterize Fagan's style, require maximum physical strength and speed to bring off convincingly. Yet, in a notoriously short-lived profession, some of the company's earliest members are still performing after nearly three decades or more, including Norwood Pennewell, who joined in 1978 and Steve Humphrey, a founding member.

But the Joyce program that features the 1981 "Prelude" -- a staged technique class that shows us the rigors of Fagan's training -- and a revival of "Passion Distanced," created in 1987 -- an extended solo, amplified in the second part by five other dancers -- manifests that although Pennewell, Fagan's long-time muse, has already defied the odds for dancing longevity, roles created on his youthful body require a resiliency that more mature muscles just don't have. Granted, he still jumps with amazing aplomb, but he's dancing with more relaxed dynamics than before, and now the effort shows.

The name of the premiere "DANCECOLLAGEFORROMIE," dedicated to artist Romare Bearden, may look cumbersome, but choreographically the piece sings. Its three sections, set to wildly disparate musical selections by Shostakovich, Villa-Lobos, and "Jelly Roll" Morton, create a sweetly peculiar collage.

Independent phrases start "Matter and Materiel," the first part. Guy Thorne and William Brown, Jr., Kevin Ormsby, and Bill Ferguson jump and spin, while slow extensions of the women, Nicolette Depass, Jin Ahn, and Michelle Hebert counterbalance their high energy. Steve Humphrey in red, carrying a long, crooked animal horn bursts in amongst them. The movement has a dynamic texture similar to that of Shostakovich's lively, discordant "Piano Concerto #1 in C minor." The independent rhythms of dance and music clash provocatively.

Pennewell and Keisha Clarke -- both with physiques attenuated like Giacometti figures -- balance coolly in stretchy T-shapes, and wrap their limbs into sculptural knots in "Detail: Down Home Also," the second section, set to a saxophone arrangement of Villa-Lobos's ubiquitous "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5." At the end, he carries her tenderly to a pillow and they fall asleep together.

In part three, "Conjur Man," the light (by C.T. Oakes, the troupe's regular designer) catches first the women in a jazzy pose, then the men ganged together behind a cardboard fragment of brick wall. Morton's Dixieland music brightens the mood for bounding leaps by Fagan's shot-from-guns guys, including also Momo Sanno; sky-high extensions by the women; and a funny, jittery solo for Pennewell.

Fagan should've quit while he was ahead: Three excerpts from his 1991 "Griot New York" to Wynton Marsalis's music close the long program. In "Waltz Detente" four couples in neon-bright unitards do a heavily pelvic version of the ballroom-dance staple, then whip off the colors for "Oracabessa Sea," in which brief, sexy black leotards show off beautifully sinewy limbs, as lanky couple Depass and Chris Morrison lead the dancers in hip-swiveling sashays around the stage. But "High Rise Riff" ends anticlimactically, muting the exhilaration "DANCECOLLAGEFORROMIE" had generated.

The Joyce Theater audience, primed with loyal Fagan fans, managed to deliver the shouts of approving the troupe has come to expect in New York, and they did their signature pleased-as-punch bows, but the enthusiasm seemed -- frankly -- a little forced.

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