Choreographing a Life of Never-Ending Innovation


Fresh off a 12-hour flight from New Zealand, where he was visiting as a Fulbright 50th anniversary distinguished fellow, Garth Fagan sits poolside at a Westwood hotel, holding forth about his life in dance. Even with jet lag, he is passionate and provocative--just like his choreography.

"The be-all of contemporary dance should be movement invention, so we change the art form, push it forward," says Fagan, the lilting rhythms of his speech betraying his Jamaican roots. "That's what I strive for, originality, and that's something I want to see more of in dance today. What I'm missing is the real experimentation."

But then you wouldn't expect the man who founded one of America's most Promethean modern dance troupes--and who hasn't stopped innovating in the more than 25 years since--to be complacent.

Multicultural long before it was a buzzword, Fagan's signature style mixes modern dance and ballet with the African-Caribbean tradition. "There's an excitement for me as an artist in that space where, say, ballet and African dance collide," Fagan says. "It's energizing, and that's the area that I plumb."

Garth Fagan Dance performs at the Carpenter Center at Cal State Long Beach tonight and is in residence at the university for two weeks as part of the campus' Summer Arts program. The Carpenter bill will feature repertory works, including "Prelude" (1981), "Oatka Trail" (1979), "River Song" (1995) and "Mix 25" (1996).

Fagan, who's 56 but seems a decade younger, was born in Jamaica. He left his native country as a teen, touring Latin America with Ivy Baxter's Jamaican Dance Company.

At 20, he landed in the United States and, shortly thereafter, enrolled at Wayne State University in Detroit. After his dance studies, he went on to become principal soloist and choreographer for Detroit Contemporary Dance Company and Dance Theatre of Detroit, as well as director of Detroit's All-City Dance Company.

In 1970, Fagan relocated to Rochester, N.Y., where he founded Garth Fagan Dance. He also began to formulate the Fagan technique.

It's an eclectic style noted for its rigor and dramatic contrasts. "A lot of the movement emanates from the back and the pelvic girdle," Fagan says. "We incorporate the speed and the precision of ballet with the floor work of modern dance and the sense of what Martha Graham would call 'inner landscapes.'

"Also, [the technique incorporates] the polyrhythms of African and African-Caribbean dance and any of the postmodern structures that exist today," he says.

Consequently, it works as well for Brahms as it does for the reggae group Culture, for Wynton Marsalis and John Cage. Last spring in fact, the company premiered "Mix 25"--a dance that's set to the music of all four and will be on the Carpenter program.

Similarly, Fagan's acclaimed "Griot New York" (seen at UCLA and the Cerritos Center in 1993) is an interdisciplinary collaboration between the choreographer, Marsalis and sculptor Martin Puryear. The work aired on PBS' "Great Performances" in 1995.

Part and parcel of the Fagan technique as well is an unconventional approach to gender roles. "My women are strong and fabulous," Fagan says. "They're not rarefied, and they're not waiting on anyone to define their existence. My women don't noodle around the stage: My women boogie!"

While Fagan's choreography includes leaps, turns and other types of movement found in both modern dance and ballet, they're not the same. For example: "We do an arabesque straight down, at a very contemporary angle," he says. "It's much harder to do that way, but it looks like a more contemporary woman."

Similarly, his notion of partnering is more expansive. "My duets are usually shared balance between the male and the female," Fagan says. "It's not, 'Let me escort you around.' "

Fagan, whose 14-member company is multiethnic, was also ahead of his time in other ways. "Another thing that was important to me was that stereotypes of race and gender would not be on my stage," he says.

Such ideas are common today, but back in 1970, they were out of step with the dance world norm. "There was lots of resistance," Fagan says. "And they were scared that my women were going to become truck drivers."

Today, contemporary dance and dance-theater--with its expanded notion of the female persona and more--clearly shows the Fagan influence. Yet the choreographer also worries that the art form is in a regressive mode.

"Everybody's got their sleek, pretty, quasi-ballet thing going on and you can't tell one company from the other," he says. "You can't find a good modern dancer who can attack the floor anymore or that understands dynamic range and movement [or] stillness in its truest sense, where you just stand there and command attention."

The fault, he says, lies not in the stars, but in the choreographers' objectives. "We're in this technical madness where we're going for technique, technique, technique," Fagan says.

"But along with that technique, there must be artistry so the dancer knows why they're doing the extension, why they're doing the fast turns," he says. "Something is communicated--not necessarily in a story line--and some kind of passion comes across."

After more than 25 years of honing his own technique, he has, after all, come to know the value of a strong methodology. "I can see the results of the technique," Fagan says. "Steve [Humphrey] is still dancing with us after 25 years, with no injuries."

And he has also come to know how necessary to creative survival it is to have an ongoing love affair with the art form. "It's a great passion," Fagan says. "Whenever I sit in the theater and the curtain goes up and I see them out there soaring, that's it. Sounds hokey, but it's not."

* Garth Fagan Dance, Carpenter Performing Arts Center, Cal State Long Beach, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach. Today, 8 p.m.; $15. (310) 985-7000.

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