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New WXXI documentary on Garth Fagan is an archaeological dig into renowned dancer’s style, legacy

Garth Fagan's Bucket Dance Theatre, circa 1986
Provided
Garth Fagan's Bucket Dance Theatre, circa 1986

After Garth Fagan won a Tony Award in 1998 for best choreography in “The Lion King,” there would seem to be nowhere else to go.

“When Garth came back from ‘The Lion King,’ it was clear to us that we were part of the creation of a legend,” Bill Ferguson says in the new WXXI documentary, “Prelude: The Legacy of Garth Fagan Dance.”

“A legend of a man, a legend of a time, a legend of a dance technique that transformed Broadway,” adds Ferguson, the dance company's executive director.

OK, a legend. Now what?

Fagan went back to work on yet another dance, “Two Pieces of One: Green.” This time, the choreography would not feature humans in hyena masks or lumbering across a stage in elephant costumes. The dancers would be unadorned, gliding and leaping across the polished floors of the Garth Fagan Dance studio, as they have for 50 years, tucked away in an anonymous-looking, nearly century-old building on Chestnut Street in downtown Rochester.

“So, not Broadway,” says Natalie Rogers-Cropper, school director of Garth Fagan Dance.

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But home, for Garth Fagan Dance.

“Prelude: The Legacy of Garth Fagan Dance” debuts at 7 p.m. Sept. 8 at The Little Theatre, sandwiched by talks with Fagan, among others. Then a series of airings begins at 9 p.m. Sept. 16 on WXXI-TV.

The editing of a man’s life comes down to making choices, and a limbo dance of technological sausage making. Just a few weeks before it was to air, WXXI producer Katie Epner was making the final tweaks on video screens filled with colorful bars showing her the placement of each segment, and green spikes depicting the accompanying audio. She snipped a frame here and a frame there to fit the 58 minutes and 30 seconds time slot.

Perhaps because of such constraints, pieces of Fagan’s story are missing: A broken relationship with his father, an Oxford-educated man who wanted Fagan to follow in his footsteps as an academic and not be… a dancer! A marriage that fell victim to two people with high career aspirations. A 2-year-old daughter who died tragically in a car accident.

Max Schulte
/
WXXI News
Garth Fagan.

And yet, in those 58 minutes and 30 seconds, “Prelude” does present a powerful sense of who Fagan is. There he is today, 82 years old, his aging dancer’s frame propped up by a cane, gingerly easing his way down the steps leading to his lush backyard, filled with vegetation and chirping birds, a mirror ball, a pagoda, and even a fountain.

We hear his distinctive speaking style, perhaps reflective of growing up in Jamaica, and how he drags out certain words for emphasis: Dancers are don-ceeers. He frequently cites astrological signs: “My brother Vir-goh.”

“Prelude” is an archaeological dig into Fagan’s personal style. He is a large and colorful presence in shirts of Afro-Caribbean shades and patterns. The bushy mustache is omnipresent. The hairstyle evolves on a whim, a fountain of hair often tamed into a ponytail secured by colorful hair ties. And as with so many who move in the orbit of Garth Fagan Dance, large necklaces are an essential accessory.

Here, we see the master of “The Lion King” in his lair. He lives alone in a fine home off East Avenue, a red-brick neo-colonial mansion built in 1927. It is filled with the art and tchotchkes of a world traveler.

Fagan has lived life to its fullest. As a young man, he enjoyed the parties that followed a trip to Cuba to dance for Fidel Castro. And with his own troupe, he expected his dancers to live as well.

“He wanted us to be educated and informed,” says Ferguson. “Because as educated and informed dancers, we could inform our artistry. That’s the thing that made touring with the company so special. It was about the whole experience of being wherever we were at.”

By digging through filmed interviews, some decades old, we see Fagan emerge on the national dance scene in the mid-1980s. We see video pulled from a 1983 local segment used on national television news show, “PM Magazine,” including raw footage of Garth Fagan Dance rehearsals that was never used. And that same year, images from “Dance Black America,” a documentary created by D.A. Pennebaker, who’s perhaps best known for the 1967 chronicle “Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back.”

We hear Fagan reflecting on leaving Jamaica for Detroit in 1960, and then a decade later a move to SUNY Brockport to build a dance program. We hear him confess self-doubt, but not a lack of ambition, in a 1986 interview: “I don’t guarantee that I’m going to do it, but I’m going to try like hell.”

Norwood "PJ" Pennywell, Garth Fagan and Natalie Rogers-Cropper watch a dancer perform in the studio.
Provided
Norwood "PJ" Pennywell, Garth Fagan and Natalie Rogers-Cropper watch a dancer perform in the studio.

“Prelude” takes us into Fagan’s studio on Chestnut Street, where dancers in bare feet are skipping and gliding across the polished floor. Fagan shouts encouragement to his dancers. “Bra-vee, bra-vee. Exceptional-lee.”

Carvin Eison has been following Garth Fagan Dance with a video camera almost since its inception.

“We just didn’t see people like Garth,” he says, citing the green Jaguar sports car. The leather coat. And there is a promotional shot of Fagan, posing for a photo on the steps of a building, holding a Doberman on a leash.

As Fagan confesses, “All kinds of shallow reasons influenced me.”

At point, the documentary turns toward the future of Garth Fagan Dance and gives us Ferguson sitting in Java’s Coffee at the Public Market, with Natalie Rogers-Cropper, school director of Garth Fagan Dance. And choreographer Norwood “PJ” Pennewell. All three once danced with the company as well. There are memories, yes. But they’re also discussing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We basically lost the company,” Pennewell says.

“So we’re in the position of starting over,” Rogers-Cropper says.

From left, Norwood "PJ" Pennywell, Garth Fagan, Natalie Rogers-Cropper and Bill Ferguson gather at Pennywell's home in the documentary "Prelude: The Legacy of Garth Fagan Dance."
Provided
From left, Norwood "PJ" Pennywell, Garth Fagan, Natalie Rogers-Cropper and Bill Ferguson gather at Pennywell's home in the documentary "Prelude: The Legacy of Garth Fagan Dance."

In another scene, they move to a couch, this time with Fagan, in Pennewell’s spacious, plant-filled home. They’re watching video of Pennewell’s first solo dance in 1982’s “Daylight Saving Time.” Pennewell’s wild leg swings are like the hands on the face of a clock.

The parade of accomplished artists who chime in on Fagan’s legacy is a testament to the lives he has touched.

We see Jacqui Davis, a SUNY Brockport professor emerita, at her home in Brockport, and sitting on a bench with Fagan outside the school. She danced in the first piece Fagan wrote, an era evidenced by a photo that could only have been comfortable in the disco era, with Davis wearing velour bell-bottom pants suits.

We see Celia Ipiotus in her living room in Oyster Bay, New York. She is the creator and producer of PBS’ “Eye on Dance,” a show that featured video from 1983’s “Dance Black America,” the event that catapulted Garth Fagan Dance to the forefront of the dance world. She speaks of the dancers’ jazz sensibility, and “the magnitude of their physicality.”

We see a 2005 video of legendary dancer Martha Graham. “They weren’t princes chasing swans,” she says. “They were just men.”

Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, sitting in the Chestnut Street studio, reflects on his collaboration with Fagan on “Griot: New York.” He says, “What makes a work rich is the complexity of the relationships.”

We see Julie Taymor, in her home in Hudson Valley, describing the dances of “The Lion King” as “isolation movement,” and remarking on how the dancers articulated their bodies to mimic the animals they were portraying.

And yet Judith Jamison of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater speaks of the stillness of Fagan dances, and how, “I wanted to be able to stop like that.”

It was Ailey who provided the seed money to launch Garth Fagan Dance. A different kind of dance. Fagan says he favored untrained dancers, “because I didn’t want to waste the time to untrain them.”

We see Aubrey Lynch and Lindiwe Dlamini, cast members of “The Lion King,” at New York City’s New Amsterdam Theatre. “He wanted dancers who were smart,” Lynch says, “were disciplined, who were unafraid and who would try anything,”

Steven Humphrey.
Provided
Steven Humphrey.

And we see Stephen Humphrey, another colorfully clad character in a knit cap, bongos in background, in the dancer lounge at the Garth Fagan Dance studio. Humphrey looks up, and the camera follows his gaze to a photo on the green wall. It’s an old version of Garth Fagan Dance. “The women were really incredible,” he says. “They were definitely better than the males.” Despite this gender handicap, Humphrey has found a way to hang in there: He’s been dancing with the company since 1970, and is still a dancer today.

And we hear a collage of philosophical axioms that must be preserved for dance posterity. “You have to love more fully, so you hurt more fully,” Fagan says. “It’s a total commitment.” He speaks of his dancers “touching the stars with their feet.”

Just as Fagan does not abandon dancers as they age, he seems to have always been committed to their circle of life, not unlike the theme of “The Lion King” that made him famous. We see Nicolette Depass Ferguson – who met her husband, Bill Ferguson, as a Garth Fagan dancer – describing how Fagan created a dance solo for her “and my growing belly” on a night that resonated across America – the election of President Barack Obama in 2008.

“Not only was I able to perform six months pregnant with my first child,” Depass Ferguson says, “all these new feelings, feeling great, feeling wonderful, at the Joyce Theatre, one of the foremost theaters for dance in New York City, where I grew up. On the same night that our first African-American president was elected president of the United States. Oh my God! I was making history for myself, for the company, for other women in the audience, Barack Obama was making history in the United States, in the world.

“I can’t thank Garth enough for that experience.”

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts and Life Editor. He can be reached at (585) 258-0343 or jspevak@wxxi.org.

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.