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Moving muse

Special to The Times

While supermodel Heidi Klum’s gams are reported to be covered by a $2-million insurance policy, Norwood Pennewell Jr.'s legs -- arguably longer and more muscled -- are considered priceless. Or at least they are by Garth Fagan, who founded his eponymous dance company in 1970 and calls the 6-foot Pennewell, a member of the troupe for 26 years, his muse.

“Garth appreciated how in tune I was with him,” Pennewell says of his dual role as performer and inspiration. “So four years after I joined the company, he decided he was going to choreograph something on me.

“I was malleable enough, and I’m a good mimic. But Garth also appreciated that I could make the dance my own.”

Or as Fagan puts it: “P.J. is very bright, very inquisitive and a wonderful dancer. When I choreograph for him, he’ll go the limit. He’s always focused and ready to work. As I try to push the boundaries -- and I don’t care how meshugeneh the movement is -- he can handle it.”

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Local audiences will have a chance to see Pennewell and 13 other members of the Rochester, N.Y.-based Garth Fagan Dance on Saturday and Sunday, when the troupe performs at the Ahmanson Theatre. For the 46-year-old Pennewell, long considered the face of the company, the engagement is just the latest stop in a circuitous journey.

Pennewell, born in Fayetteville, N.C., and raised in upstate New York, recalls being laughed at in elementary school for his awkwardness at a social dance.

“But my physical education teacher said I reminded him of Bojangles,” says Pennewell, referring to the great African American tapper Bill Robinson, “and he showed me a step. I tried it, and people said I was great. It’s ironic that dancing turned out to be my career.”

Rather than ironic, it may have been predestined: Pennewell, it turns out, was always into his body. He studied martial arts and gymnastics in high school and, while attending the State University of New York at Geneseo, was coaxed by a friend into trying theater.

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“I was a bad student,” a bespectacled Pennewell says during a conversation in the Ahmanson lobby. “I got thrown off the gymnastics team because I was late and ended up doing five musicals. I could hold a note in ‘Oliver!,’ but I was told I needed to take dance classes.”

The tyro dutifully threw himself into modern, jazz and ballet studies before fate again intervened. Choreographer Fagan -- based in nearby Rochester and decades away from creating the Tony Award-winning dances for Broadway’s “The Lion King” -- was giving a lecture-demonstration on campus. Pennewell remembers being blown away.

“I was in love with Martha Graham, Balanchine, Alvin Ailey, and was starting to understand about different dance forms. But I hadn’t seen anything that theatrical before or with such diverse bodies,” he recalls. “Garth loves different sizes and was multicultural before it was fashionable. His use of the back and the concept of getting into the earth was part of African dance -- I never thought I could do that.”

Pennewell not only could do it, he could do it incredibly well. After taking three classes with Fagan (there is no audition process for the Fagan troupe), he was encouraged to stay for a summer and “shore up” his skills. Those skills -- which draw on such sources as the sense of weight in modern dance, the use of torso-centered movement in Afro-Caribbean dance, and the speed and precision of ballet -- allow Pennewell to bound into the air as if he were a helium balloon.

They are also what helped land him in Garth Fagan Dance in 1978. Now, being in his mid-40s is another factor that makes him emblematic of the troupe, known for its broad age range. Original member Steve Humphrey, for instance, is 52.

But though Pennewell may be the face of Garth Fagan Dance, the Jamaican-born Fagan, 64, remains the high-octane engine powering the company. After stopping dancing in 1980, he says, he found that with Pennewell as a kind of alter ego, he could devote more time to making works not only for his own company but also for Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and others.

“I couldn’t do it all,” Fagan explains by phone from Rochester. “When I was dancing, I had to totally focus before I went onstage. I also had to teach class, fund-raise and be wardrobe mistress. It was distracting.”

Nowadays, Pennewell also works as Fagan’s assistant, and his taut, Giacometti-like physique looks far younger than his years. He attributes his longevity to Fagan’s technique, which he routinely teaches four hours a day.

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“For 25 years, I’ve been injury-free -- and that’s Garth’s technique,” he says. “I’ve also got a wonderful role model in Steve Humphrey. I’ve watched him evolve and tried to emulate him -- what he can do at his age. My body is still pliant, and I’m not going to put a time limit on how long I’ll dance.”

Fagan says he’s not ready for Pennewell to stop dancing. He also says he himself has no plans to retire. He believes, however, that Pennewell has the talent and intelligence to be his successor.

“I trust him,” the choreographer says, “and that’s important. He knows the subtle and nuanced movement ideas that are in my work that lots of people don’t get or understand.”

Says Pennewell, who bought Fagan’s house several years ago and considers him family: “Garth will expire before he retires. Besides, I told Garth I could never do what he does. But he just said, ‘You can do it. You’re going to be fine. You’ll just do it your way.’ ”

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Garth Fagan Dance

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

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Price: $20 to $55

Contact: (213) 365-3500


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