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Gabrielle Samuel, Ebony Vasquez and Sabrina Cmelak in “The North Star.” Photograph courtesy of Garth Fagan Dance

Keeping the Faith

Garth Fagan, devoted to dance

If there’s a secret to keeping a dance company together for more than 50 years, Garth Fagan knows what it is. Indeed, his Rochester, NY-based Garth Fagan Dance was founded in 1970 (first called Bottom of the Bucket, BUT…Dance Theatre), and, at 81, Fagan, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica, has no plans to retire.

It’s no coincidence, either, that his Tony-winning choreography of the stage musical, “The Lion King,” which opened on Broadway in 1997 and has been seen by more than 100 million people worldwide, is part of Fagan’s success equation.

Happily, then, after a five-year absence, the troupe returns to Los Angeles April 8-10 for three concerts at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center. (The company will also be part of “Dance for Life,” a festival conceived by activist Phill Wilson and dancer Desmond Richardson, to fight HIV/AIDS and Covid-19 on April 23.) 

Garth Fagan. Photograph by Matt Wittmeyer

“Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, all people are good,” explained Fagan by phone from his home in Rochester, his lilting Jamaican accent still evident. “My beloved mother was a true, true Christian in the broadest sense of the word, and my father, not so much. He gave me discipline and kicked my butt. He also got me to stand up for myself and for all that’s good and all that’s wonderful. When you have a dance company, it’s a family. Period. And all the pluses and minuses come dropped at your door.”

The pluses have been many: Several of Fagan’s dancers have been with the troupe for decades: Steve Humphrey was part of the original company in 1970; Norwood (PJ) Pennewell joined in 1978; and Natalie Rogers-Cropper, who joined in 1989 and left in 2003 to have a baby, returned a decade later. All three are Bessie Award winners and both Pennewell and Rogers-Cropper were Fagan’s assistants on “The Lion King.”

So, devotion, one might say, is a two-way street in the Fagan family of dancers.

“We are now in our 52nd year,” exclaimed the indefatigable Fagan, who has choreographed more than 70 works for his troupe and others, including for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and New York City Ballet. “You talk about devotion—I love them to pieces. I don’t take stuff from them, I don’t allow them to destroy themselves. Without PJ and Nat, there would be no “Lion King.”

“When the divas couldn’t do something,” added Fagan, “PJ and Nat said, “What are you talking about—step, cross, jump and don’t stumble. Get up, dear.” That was a kind of discipline. There was my daddy’s phrase, “Discipline is freedom.” I don’t think he created it, but he used it ad nauseum and it served me so well. Thank you, Jesus.”

Indeed, “The Lion King,” which won six Tony Awards and was directed by Julie Taymor, has played more than 100 cities in 20 countries on every continent except Antarctica, earning over $8 billion. (It returns to L.A. in late 2023 after a 10-year absence.) The show has also kept Fagan busy over the years, with the choreographer checking in on various productions around the world.

Garth Fagan with company members of Garth Fagan Dance. Photograph courtesy of the company

Said Fagan, whose honors include, among others, a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Theater Choreographer, Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Choreography and a Guggenheim Fellowship: “You have to keep brushing up [companies]. The whole Broadway scene—it’s “Kick, kick, turn, turn, shake your booties.” That’s not what, “The Lion King” is about. Which is why in every language, in every culture around the world, people love it and explode at the same place.

“When we were in London, [the late opera star] Jessye Norman came and they had her standing outside before they let her in,” Fagan continued. “I said to [the usher], “Listen to me. This is one of the greatest voices God put on this earth. We’re personal friends of hers—Julie and I—you seat her now.” Since that time, Julie calls me, ‘her knight in shining Gucci.’”

And despite his penchant for designer clothes, good food, wine and sports cars, Fagan still puts family—both biological and terpsichorean—first. His father, an Oxford graduate, was a chief education officer of Jamaica, He passed away in 1974, but lived to see the success of his son’s dance troupe.

To hear the choreographer tell it, one can almost feel the emotion of that experience. “We went to Jamaica and I called him and said, “Dad, we’re here. I’m staying at the hotel with the kids and I hope you’re going to make it.” And he said, “Oh, yes.” The grand poohbah—he had to have a box.

“And honey,” recalled Fagan, addressing this writer, “after that show, the man came backstage weeping. Not crying, not shedding a tear, but weeping and said, “Had I known that it was going to have intellectual substance and cultural significance so beautifully woven in it, instead of 50 girls running around the room, I would have seen it sooner.”

And what audiences have seen over the years is the Fagan brand: Choreography that’s a blend of Afro-Caribbean and modern dance, with technically challenging roles that require changes in rhythms and speed, all infused with elegant athleticism. His dancers—now numbering nine—also need to have cores of steel that allow for effortless jumps and the ability to transition into quicksilver turns and jaw-dropping off-center balances. As Judith Jamison, former Ailey dancer who was also artistic director of the troupe for many years, once said of Fagan’s work: “It’s polyrhythmic, it’s about sculpting space in a different way.”

Those myriad ways can be seen on the L.A. bill, one that opens with the oft-performed “Prelude.” A theatrical display of classroom exercises, accentuated by Fagan’s signature style, the work was created in 1981 and revised in 1983. Featuring the entire company, its subtitle, “Discipline is Freedom,” not surprisingly, is a nod to his father.

The program also features the West Coast premiere of the five-part, “The North Star,” a celebration of the life of orator/abolitionist/statesman Frederick Douglass. From 2018—the bicentennial of Douglass’s birth—the dance, partially set to the Rastafarian sounds of the Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon” features lyrics from Psalm 137 and opens with a solo by Humphrey. Also featuring music by jazz composer, Walter Blanding, the work has a cast that includes Rogers-Cropper, here portraying Douglass’ mother, Davente Gilreath as the young statesman and Pennewell as the mature Douglass.           

Fagan said that he first came up with the concept and then researched the life of Douglass, with his choreographic process beginning in silence. “The silence is me alone and I think and imagine, then I’ll get in the studio [where] I start the movement. Then I have them learn the movement, learn the rhythms, learn what’s weighted and what’s not weighted—learn the important parts of the body that they should use and shouldn’t use.

“Then I bring on the music,” added Fagan, “and their eyes just light up and they cheer, because the movement works so well with the music. There’s always things that I have to rephrase or goose a little or take something out.”

And never knowing when, where or how creativity might strike, Fagan segued to reminiscent mode and mentioned his work, “Moth Dreams,” which premiered in 1992. “It’s one of my favorites,” the choreographer exclaimed. “It was in Los Angeles and Natalie was sitting next to me on the plane and this moth was clinging to the seat.

“It was saying, “I am not going anywhere, I paid for this ticket.” It was such a source of inspiration to me,” recalled Fagan, “it’s the sense of the moment. It’s you. It’s me. It’s anybody, the things we have to cling to, irrespective of the drama or occurrences or tragedies or traumas. It’s problems, dammit.”

Fagan lets out a hearty laugh before blurting out, “There I go cussing again before coming to L.A.” 

Norwood (PJ) Pennewell. Photograph by Erich Camping

No need to worry, as L.A. adores Fagan, with viewers also having the chance to see a pair of Pennewell works, “Dreamer,” from October of last year, and an untitled work in progress. A muse to Fagan over the years as well as his assistant and rehearsal director, Pennewell, 62, has been making dances for the troupe since 2010, with then New York Times’ writer, Claudia La Rocco, describing Pennewell’s first choreography, “Hylozoic,” as “a promising, sophisticated start.”

He’s lived up to those words and more, ascribing his success, in part, to his father-like relationship to Fagan. “My father passed when I was 16 and my mother passed the year I got in the company, in 1978, so basically he’s my adopted father. He’s taken me under his wing. He’s very, very nurturing, but at the same time he’s been adamant about a certain maintenance of standards and curiosity.

“He wants us all to be abreast of everything,” added Pennewell, who lives in the house he bought from Fagan some 20 years ago, now with his wife, photographer Rosalie O’Connor, “even politics, which I hate. He knew what he wanted from myself and the dancers. He’s also one of the hardest working people. To me he’s a mentor, guru, my psychologist—and in the beginning he was even my nutritionist.”

Pennewell said that the genesis of his 14-minute work, “Dreamer,” set to the music of Baljinder Sekhon II, was to celebrate two anniversaries: the Rochester-based Eastman School of Music at 150 and Garth Fagan Dance’s half-century. “I wanted to do something to showcase Davente and my process starts in the classes, when we do our progressions on the floor.

“That’s when I throw out movement ideas. He’s my muse right now and is able to anticipate what he thinks I want him to do. It’s a joy to be able to work with him. I used the composer’s title and we both felt like dreamers. This piece also has to do with the aspirational aspects of dreaming, striving for your dreams. Davente displayed that his dream was to get to where he has gotten and to go further.”

Pennewell’s untitled 26-minute work, which includes four duets and teems with joyous unison leaps, pirouettes and one-legged stances, is performed to music by Marc Cary, Dj-9 and Masters of Groove. He explained: “We do a duet performance every February for Valentine’s day as a fundraiser and it [had been] going for 10 years. But because of Covid, we had to postpone them, so I wanted this to be a piece that could stand on its own, while also pulling out sections for duets.” 

Davente Gilreath in “Dreamer.” Photograph courtesy of Garth Fagan Dance

No creation, though, is performed onstage without Fagan’s final approval. “I had Garth come in to look at this piece,” Pennewell pointed out. “He was complimentary, but he immediately went to work. He doesn’t tell me what to do, but he gives me suggestions. “This would work if you do this, because that line is really beautiful, but you’re going to lose your line there.” When he shows up, he’s ready to work. There are notes that need to be taken and he’s definitely on the job. Garth is crystal clear; he’s on fire.”

Fagan reciprocated: “I’m so proud of what PJ’s doing. He was a problem early on, that’s how I knew he would be a good choreographer. I just could see the light inside him and the light beyond him. When I said, “No, no, higher, faster, slower, lower or whatever”—all the adjectives you can come up with—he would not stumble. He would try it and try it until he got it right. And then I could give him my amen, my Hallelujah. I do give beautiful gifts, I must say—and he enjoys it.”

That, too, is part of Fagan’s recipe for keeping a company together, along with, “patience, patience, patience,” acknowledged Fagan, “and more patience. Realizing that this, too, will pass and the dancers are going through whatever madness as human beings do go through and sometimes you got to hug them and sometimes you gotta say, “Cut this crap out right now. Go out of the studio and compose yourself.”

“Whatever, but it’s basically love,” added the choreographer, “but no mushy love, not demanding love, but whatever you can use to motivate them and sell them, the better.”

The fruits of the Fagan philosophy—and full range of his dancers’ artistry—will also be on display in his works, “Sonata and the Afternoon” (1983), “4 Women” (an excerpt from the 1973 “Liberation Suite”) and “Talk: Ms./Mrs. (an excerpt from the 2005 “Senku”—a Ghanian term for a keyboard instrument).

But the question inevitably comes up: When might Fagan, who’s on the cusp of 82, decide to step down? Pennewell said that they’ve asked him what he was thinking. “But it’s a delicate thing. You don’t want to make it appear that you’re trying to get him out. We try to be sensitive but we want to know.

“He feels like he’s still got some time,” elucidated Pennewell, “that he still has pieces to choreograph. He calls his good friend [educator, filmmaker and associate professor at SUNY Brockport Rochester] Carvin Eison, who asks him periodically, “Are you still thinking about a piece? We want to see what you would come up with now.”

“Garth says he’s got a pandemic piece in the creative oven that he’s going to come out with maybe next year,” added Pennewell and that, mindful of his health, Fagan is, “taking care of himself. He can’t run around like he used to and can’t afford the stress of being the head of an organization where you have created something that’s unusual. And he has to okay the people that are hired. If he doesn’t like them or see the spiritual thing there, then it won’t work.”

As for the man himself and his thoughts on the ‘R’ word, he simply says, “Hell, no. I’m going to keep working til I can’t anymore. I love the work. I love my dancers. I love choreography,” adding, “and I always set myself new challenges and come up with new ideas. What would I retire to?”