At age 64, Caribbean American choreographer Garth Fagan is a master of constant, dramatic contrasts: moment-by-moment switches in rhythm, tempo, vocabulary, dynamics -- often against the unbroken flow of music -- that usually knit together in complex statements about human diversity.
Linear ballet extensions, Afro-Caribbean social-dance steps, modern dance torso isolations, postmodern pedestrian moves: All these and more turned up in a five-part program by Garth Fagan Dance at the Ahmanson Theatre on Saturday. They offered an index to many of the idioms Fagan has loved to dance and see during his lifetime -- and maybe where the art is headed next.
Fagan prefers juxtaposition to fusion, and "Prelude (Discipline is Freedom)" established his style in an unaccompanied opening solo by the exemplary Norwood Pennewell marked by bold playoffs between high-velocity changes of position and majestic balances in extension.
Music by Abdullah Ibrahim and Max Roach defined the trajectory of the piece, taking the 13 company dancers from a theatricalized version of the classroom (stretches on the floor, exercises in flexibility) to showpiece heaven.
In the intense men's trio "Oatka Trail," Steve Humphrey's assaultive vigor initially looked anti-musical, while Pennewell and Momo Sanno more astutely reflected the surge of the Dvorak accompaniment in their pressureless jumps and sinewy balances. Eventually all three worked together, powerfully realizing the unity and then separate exits of the last section.
Where "Oatka Trail" aimed for Fagan style at its most classical, "Touring Jubilee 1924" offered an impression of playful, loose-limbed vintage pop dance -- but with plenty of technical challenges (especially the men's sudden dives forward that ended in cantilevered freezes) and a very endearing duet for Bill Ferguson and Nicolette Depass.
Pop influences also eventually dominated "Woza," Fagan's five-part suite to music by Lebo M. It began with radical contortions by the fabulously pliant Sharon Skepple, then introduced an inventively tangled relationship between Pennewell and Annique Roberts before venturing some creative gymnastic floor duets -- including one of the same-sex partnerships that turned up throughout the program.
After such serious choreographic experiment, the let's-party social-dance finale came across not as one more Faganesque contrast but as a new piece entirely -- lilting and charming, but grafted onto the earlier sections, not integral.
Dedicated to African American painter and collagist Romare Bearden, "DANCECOLLAGEFORROMIE" was full of off-the-wall surprises but held together better than "Woza." Humphrey holding an enormous snake, Ferguson on crutches, all the men clustered behind a locomotive placard: These and other mysteries punctuated the year-old piece, while the very different musical priorities of Shostakovich, Villa-Lobos and "Jelly Roll" Morton merged in the dancers' bodies.
The costumes by Mary Nemecek Peterson expressed the ideal of collage by isolating fragments of vests, bodices, ties, etc., on plain fabrics, but Fagan emphasized collage less than the recycling of his unusual props and motifs in new combinations.
Two overlapping rectangles projected on the backdrop abstracted the key motif of the central duet for Pennewell and Keisha Clarke as well as other passages: parallel horizontal extensions by dancers in slightly offset layers. Pennewell, Clarke and others also periodically plucked at the air below them as if to gather their rosebuds while they might -- good advice for these short Music Center dance engagements in which the pleasures of high achievement remain fleeting.
If we consider the Fagan program a prime example of the versatility and sophistication of concert dance in this new century, the only question is why work of such quality isn't more widely recognized. American dance never seems to lack major artists, but its support system has deteriorated until one or two nights are all that a city the size of Los Angeles can sustain.
That's deplorable. If serious dance stays well-nigh invisible in American life, all the dance forms that Fagan lovingly embeds in his works like buried treasure will grow undecipherable and the art itself nothing more than fodder for rocking-chair reminiscences. I remember Garth, I remember dance.