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IMPRESSIONS: Garth Fagan Dance at The Joyce

IMPRESSIONS: Garth Fagan Dance at The Joyce

Published on November 20, 2017
"A Moderate Cease"; Photo Credit: Erich Camping

November 7, 2017

Choreography: Garth Fagan

No Evidence of Failure (2013), Estrogen/Genius (world premiere), Translation Transition (2002)

Choreography: Norwood Pennewell

A Moderate Crease (2016, New York City premiere), Wecoo Duende (world premiere)


Dance is a language passed down from body to body, spirit to spirit. This physical folklore runs through each dancer back to the beginning of time itself. To watch a person dance is to watch history in action.

Although choreographer Garth Fagan doesn’t take the stage save bows with his titular troupe during its weeklong residency at The Joyce Theater, the influences gathered in him manifest themselves in his performers’ every movement. Born in Jamaica, he studied under modern dance legends Pearl Primus, Martha Graham, and Alvin Ailey, among others. Perhaps best known to the casual dancegoer as the choreographer of The Lion King, Fagan is celebrating 47 years as artistic director of his company — that’s a big deal!

Garth Fagan Dance shares works both new and old, with choreography by Fagan and his long-time dancer and muse, Bessie award-winner Norwood Pennewell. On the five-piece B program (there’s three total), the Rochester-based company boogies with esprit.

From L to R: Rishell Maxwell and Le’Tiger Walker in Norwood Pennewell’s A Moderate Cease. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.

Like miners panning for gold, Fagan and Pennewell winnow their movement vocabulary to a handful steps that sparkle: sky-piercing leaps (Primus), lateral T’s (Ailey via Lester Horton), and many, many side tilts (Graham). In the spirit of Afro-Caribbean dance, torsos undulate democratically and feet patter rollickingly. One impressive motif appears often — an endless balance, one leg extended, the other rooted to the floor, as arms trace through the air.

With the choreography staying mostly static, it falls to the musical selections to cast a mood. During A Moderate Crease, the stridency of William Walton’s Cello Concerto hints at a community in peril, the lovely Adriene B. Hodge its contemplative leader. In Wecoo Duende (world premiere), the peppy percussive polyrhythms of Senegalese Doudou N’Diaye Rose Orchestra and the plaintive kora of Seckou Keita, also Senegalese, ground the ten dancers in a communal exchange of flickering feet.

Natalie Rogers in Garth Fagan’s Estrogen/Genius. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.

One note of dissonance sounds with the pairing of Naturally 7, an all-male a cappella group, to the all-female Estrogen Genius (a world premiere). “And I will try to fix you” and “Let’s run away” sing Naturally 7, words that lack resonance with these female dynamos, who don’t seem to need to be fixed by a man or to run away with a man. Afterward, a careful reading of the lyrics indicates that they may be interpreted in a spiritual context; in performance, however, they register as incongruous.

The showcasing of older dancers like Pennewell and Steve Humphrey (an original member) stands as one of the evening’s chief joys. Natalie Rogers, who joined the company in 1989, headlines several works. Lithe like a teenager, she shows that age ain’t nothing but a number, her technique undiminished, her performance lustrous with experience. In No Evidence of Failure, the inverse May/ December relationship between her and thirty-five-year-old Vitolio Jeune makes it look like he’s the lucky one.

The evening is long at two hours with two fifteen-minute intermissions, and the episodic pieces do start to bleed together. Then, an excerpt from Translation Transition jolts us awake. The dancers surge on stage, grinning, hips swiveling. It’s a party, and I want to join.


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