A ‘King’-sized vision

Sure, modern dance master Garth Fagan won a coveted Tony Award for his spellbinding choreography in the Broadway production of The Lion King. But the Jamaican-born founder and artistic director of the renowned Garth Fagan Dance generally explores territory that’s a little more postmodern.

Take, for example, what is perhaps his best-known piece — Griot New York — unveiled in 1993 on a national tour in 1993 with the Wynton Marsalis Septet, and since performed in venues ranging from the Tonight Show stage to concert halls across America and Europe. In Griot New York, a shirtless man and woman bond then fly apart, bond then fly apart, bond then … you get it. Marsalis’ moody jazz score wails in the background, and the oversized backdrop displays a looming cityscape. The piece explores the challenge of holding on to one’s humanity while mired in urban grime and alienated by a hazy sense of purpose.

Under Fagan’s direction, however, that existential dilemma becomes a gritty, yet gracefully poetic, work of art.

Fagan began his dance career under the tutelage of esteemed Jamaican choreographer Ivy Baxter. He went on to become the director of Detroit’s All-City Dance Company and was principal soloist and choreographer for both the Detroit Contemporary Dance Company and Dance Theatre of Detroit. Upon moving to New York City, Fagan studied with modern-dance icons Martha Graham, Jose Limon, Mark Hinkson and Alvin Ailey before forming his own company.

Now in its 27th season, Garth Fagan Dance is best-known for its unabashed originality, unmannered approach and sheer technical virtuosity. “The handsome, exotic, completely concentrated Fagan dancers move as if they were born speaking Fagan’s language and they love the feel of it in their bodies,” writes Vogue’s Elizabeth Kendall. And David Vaughan, in Ballet Review, gushed, “The dancers he has trained are virtuosi, no doubt about it, and fearless too — able to sustain long adagio balances, to change direction in mid-air, to vary the dynamic of a turn, to stop on a dime.” The New York Times simply called Fagan “a painter in movement who defies the bonds of gravity.”

Fagan’s dance language draws on sources as disparate as African culture, family ties and the soul-bruising ravages of an industrial society. These themes are given form by his troupe through techniques that range from the torso-centered movement and wild energy of Afro-Caribbean dance; the cool precision of ballet; and the use of bodies as kinetic, living sculptures.

While African-American history eventually became a major theme in Fagan’s pieces, the colonialism of his native country was the dance master’s first influence. “I grew up with [British-derived] pantomimes,” Fagan noted recently, referring to traditional British theater pieces incorporating songs, dances and stories, “and danced in some of them during my teenage years, when I was young and supple and silly and wild.

“I’m all of that now — except young and supple,” he added.

It should come as no surprise that Fagan’s take on the The Lion King veers afield of the traditional cartoon images found in the film on which the Broadway production is based. Once dance critic put it this way: “A postmodern choreographer who’s been doing the multicultural thing with a company of African-American dancers ends up choreographing for Disney.” An odd proposition, by anyone’s standards. Consequently, the visionary choreographer says he approached the tale of a lion cub’s rites of passage with initial reluctance. “My concern was how to keep my integrity but still keep the Broadway audience intrigued,” Fagan told one reporter. “[But it turned out to be] a nice balancing act. I hadn’t seen the movie … until I was offered the job. Once I saw the movie — and I must say I went with fear and trepidation — I absolutely fell in love with it.”

That love manifests itself — in Fagan’s majestic, two-and-one-half-hour extravaganza — in the form of human “animals” who reveal their personalities through dance: Sinister hyenas are portrayed as breakdancing street toughs; the lionesses’ hunts are embodied en masse in arching leaps across the stage toward their prey — gracefully prancing gazelles. The production’s opening procession alone is reportedly worth the ticket price, as an undulating line of dancers in elaborately carved and bejeweled masks and towering headdresses sway to the distinctive rhythms and gaits that identify their animal groups, each moving in counterpoint to the others.

“It’s so much better than [people] covered up in furry suits going, ‘Grrr,'” Fagan once noted.

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