If there is such a thing as dance heaven, Garth Fagan Dance showed Saturday that it knows the path there.
The Rochester, N.Y.-based company presented the West Coast premiere of "Geoffrey Holder Life Fete … Bacchanal," a tribute to the late dancer and choreographer who won a Tony Award for his direction of "The Wiz."
Fagan credits Holder for paving the way for Fagan's work on "The Lion King," which won him a Tony for choreography. His troupe performed the Holder "Life Fete" with a medley of repertoire works at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center in Mid-City Los Angeles.
With an ensemble of six dancers slowly bowing and bending around an empty spotlight, Fagan's 1987 "Passion Distanced" served as a solemn prelude for the homage to Holder, perhaps best known outside the theater world as the spokesman in 7 Ups's "Uncola" commercial and for his role as James Bond villain Baron Samedi in "Live and Let Die."
If "Passion Distanced" was a figurative funeral for Holder, who died in 2014, then Fagan's "Life Fete" tribute was a joyous celebration of the man's life, inspired by Calypso music and Afro-Caribbean dance from Holder's native Trinidad and Tobago.
The company burst onto the scene with lively shakes and shimmies, which seemed to honor Holder's heritage. At first the dancing appeared almost too celebratory, but any doubts lifted when, in a touching duet, longtime Fagan dancer and rehearsal director Norwood Pennewell played the part of Holder and Adriene Barber assumed the role of Holder's wife, dance star Carmen de Lavallade. Spoken word by de Lavallade and Holder's son Leo — "death might stop what you do … but it does not stop who you are" — resonated deeply as the company swirled around the dancing couple.
In Fagan's vision of Holder's heaven, jubilant Calypso dancers do the limbo. Could there be any more appropriate recessional to the pearly gates?
Meanwhile, Pennewell's "So You See," which made its West Coast debut, was a scintillating display of the dancer and choreographer's talent for making music out of movement. The company members embodied jazz. To lilting piano riffs, they bounced, jumped, stretched and swooned just like sliding notes on a scale.
The company also performed Fagan's signature work "Prelude: Discipline Is Freedom" from 1983 with energetic verve and "Come … Celebrate" from 1999 with exuberance.
Pennewell and Sade Bully personified jazz's sultry side in "Spring Yaounde," a duet from Fagan's 1991 "Griot New York." Aside from a few trembles, the pair morphed into exquisite counter-balances, arabesques and arches that surged with sexual tension.
Bully remained a captivating, versatile and resilient force throughout. By the time she soloed in "So You See," seeing her break a sweat was a marvel to behold. Her luscious lines and outstanding leg extensions reached their peak. She arched her glistening back toward the audience and extended her arms out slowly, while luxuriating in a deep plié on one foot, unfurling like a flower finally coming into bloom.
Like much of Garth Fagan Dance's work, there was one word to describe it: heavenly.