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Fifty years of Garth Fagan Dance: Music. Healing. Love.

Jan 15, 2020

Fagan answers questions from the media during the opening weekend of The Lion King at the Rochester Broadway Theater.
Credit Max Shulte / WXXI News

Norwood Pennewell’s adoptive father was dead by the time he was 16 years old, and his adoptive mother was gone a few years later.

Jeff Tyzik speaks of growing up in a dysfunctional home.

When they first set eyes on Garth Fagan, and what he was doing with dance, Pennewell and Tyzik were “blown away.” Independently, both use that phrase. They were college students then, searching for their identities, and they were intimidated.

As for Fagan himself, there were voids to be filled in his life as well. A broken relationship with his father, a marriage that fell victim to two people with high career aspirations, and a 2-year-old daughter who died tragically.

What is broken, can be healed. In the case of these three men, it comes through music, and dance.

That healing process is ongoing. Pennewell joined Garth Fagan Dance in 1978, first as that blown-away student, now as teacher, principal dancer, and personal assistant to Fagan. Tyzik, as principal pops conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, spent the last half of 2019 assembling “50 Years of Garth Fagan Dance,” a collaborative celebration between the RPO and the dance company that will be presented January 24 and 25 at Eastman Theatre’s Kodak Hall. That’s 50 years of the dance company in Western New York. And, as of May 3, 80 years of Fagan roaming larger geography, Planet Earth.

“I’ve got to take five pills a day,” Fagan says. “For cholesterol, for all kinds of problems, but it works.” Works enough for 80, anyway. If Fagan drops something on the floor, he might have to call for his other personal assistant, Bill Ferguson, to pick it up. “I don’t bend as well as I used to, but these are minute things.”

Fagan is a Tony Award winner for his choreography on the Broadway hit, “The Lion King” (1998) with dance that reflects Africa. In 1991 he and Wynton Marsalis teamed up for “Griot New York,” a celebration of the city’s urban life. Fagan’s choreography for Duke Ellington’s only opera, “Queenie Pie,” was presented at The Kennedy Center For the Performing Arts in 1986. His dancers move to the sounds of classical, jazz, African, and Caribbean music. Sexually hot duets, black street sensibilities, and bird-like ballet poses erupt into athletic leaps. No combination is unthinkable. In1986 Fagan took the hit song “Slave to the Rhythm” by fellow Jamaica native Grace Jones, threw in some recorded comments by Jones, and came up with a dance called “Mask Mix Masque.”

Much of that sprawling artistry will be celebrated this year. Among many other events, Fagan will be joined by his friend, the pianist Monty Alexander, at the Rochester International Jazz Festival for a June 24 show at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. WXXI television is re-airing an episode of the interview show, “Norm & Company” with Fagan at 8 p.m. on January 30. And earlier, on January 20 (Martin Luther King Jr. Day), Garth Fagan Dance studio will offer free dance lessons throughout the day; check garthfagandance.org for details.

For all of these 50 years and international acclaim, Fagan has remained deeply rooted in Rochester. The company’s studio is downtown at 50 Chestnut Street. Its home theater is Nazareth College. Fagan himself lives in a moneyed street off of East Avenue, a little red-brick neo-colonial mansion built in 1927. The garden in the backyard has a pagoda and a whimsical metal piece by Rochester sculptor Paul Knoblauch standing by a rock-strewn pond and fountain.

Fagan often says profound things. Creating a new dance piece is, he once said, “Reaching for a unique, deep, rich, shattering something. For me, that comes from a place of solitude.”

Yet Fagan is also slyly funny — he showed off that side of his personality a few years ago when he appeared as a guest on National Public Radio’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” He likes food, wine, nice clothes, jewelry, sports cars, people, and culture.

“And I’ve been all over the world,” he said. “Every major city I have been in, and some pretty minor ones.” He’s been to six of the seven continents (the Antarctic dance scene has yet to emerge). “Everybody claimed us,” Fagan said of these world tours. “Every single community wanted us to be from them.

“And we said, ‘Thank you, thank you.’”

Travel and bringing home new ideas: that’s Garth Fagan Dance. “Different languages, different attitudes, different things that audiences bring into the theatre with them,” Fagan said. “What they ate, what they discussed at home, what they saw on TV or whatever, you know. All of that, it energizes the performances, it hurls things at the performances, and we either catch them, or we let them fall by the wayside. But we try to catch them and use them, because travel is knowledge and information.”

He’s appreciative of where he came from, and where he has been. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Fagan had to push against his father, as a teenager seeking room to breathe. “My daddy was tough, my dad was an Oxford man and tough as nails,” Fagan said. “You either did it perfectly or you didn’t even attempt to. And I survived that.”

Dad wanted his son to go into academics. Fagan wanted to dance. He joined Jamaica’s National Dance Theatre Company, run by the country’s best-known dance choreographer, Ivy Baxter. He was 20 when he followed her off the island, dancing in an outdoor stadium at Cuban President Fidel Castro’s 1959 inauguration.

A year later, Fagan left for Detroit, where he had relatives, and studied psychology at Wayne State University. But his body rejected academic life; he was lured away by the school’s strong dance program. Fagan was soon working with city dance students and the Detroit Contemporary Dance Company as primary dancer and choreographer. Ten years later, he was on his way to New York City, intending to study with the iconic Alvin Ailey. But first, he took a few weeks to teach a summer dance course at the State University College at Brockport.

And then, he just never found a reason to leave. Fagan began teaching unlikely candidates for dance: poor kids from Rochester who had no training. Fagan called it The Bottom of the Bucket, But ... Dance Theatre. By 1981, it was shortened to The Bucket Dance Theatre. A decade later, when his own name had grown enough to carry the company, it became Garth Fagan Dance.

The dancers come and go, yet loyalty is a significant aspect of Garth Fagan Dance. There is Pennewell. Natalie Rogers-Cropper joined in 1981, dancing deep into pregnancy, and now directs the Garth Fagan School of Dance. Steve Humphrey has been with Fagan since the early days, and is still dancing. “I formed this company to keep mature dancers performing, so that lots that we learn in life from outside our art form, they can bring to the stage,” Fagan said. “Whereas as other art forms, actors, they’re all going to their dotage, even as young as me.”

Fagan’s humor works alongside the serious matters at hand. He has danced to the rhythms of Duke Ellington. And for Ellington, there was no coasting through a show.

“Duke was my mentor,” he said. “And Duke cursed me out after a performance in Toronto, Canada. I did a matinee performance and I thought, oh, I’ll just telegraph it, because I’ve got a show tonight. And honey, Duke said, ‘Don’t you ever do that again. I don’t know who was out there dancing, that was not you, you left it in the wings. How dare you,’ blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I’ll never forget it, as long as I live. And that was a blessing, and these were mentors that cared about us and cared about the standards and taught us about the standards and insisted that we uphold them. Hallelujah.”

Tyzik, too feels the shadow of Ellington and his longtime accompanist, the pianist and arranger Billy Strayhorn. Ellington’s “Take the A Train” will be a part of the Fagan tribute. “When I’m in the room working on it, I feel like Duke and Billy are looking over my shoulder,” Tyzik said. “I feel like they’re in the room. So there is a deep, transcendent, spiritual thing that happens in those moments, when you’re creating something, and I’m sure Garth has a similar experience, because that’s where those moments come from.”

So Fagan is a mentor, and a healer of dancers’ souls, who compares his charges to a canvas and oil paints. Except, he said, the canvas and oils remain silent, while his dancers bring to the floor the full range of human drama. For better, or for worse. Perhaps not unexpected of a dancer, Fagan seems to allow the relationships with his dancers to come together in natural steps. Pennewell seems to be an excellent example.

Pennewell was once too shy to ask Fagan about joining The Bucket. But Fagan coaxed him out of his shell.

Except, even after a handful of classes that evolved into casual rehearsals, “I didn’t really realize I was in the company, if you can believe that,” Pennewell said.

For example, furing rehearsals for a piece called “Salon For a Fashionable Five-Toed Dragon,” a comment on the fashion industry, Pennewell believed he was an understudy. Then the costume designer pulled him aside, needing to take measurements. “Uh, why?” Pennewell asked. He was in the show.

Some time later, at another show, “I was browsing through the program, I saw that I was listed as rehearsal director,” Pennewell said. Another nudge up the ladder from Fagan. “He told me, ‘It’s a big responsibility, don’t let it get to your head.’”

And 12 years ago, Fagan was at a post-performance talk when he announced that Pennewell would choreograph a piece the following year.

Today, Pennewell remains the director of rehearsals. And he’s choreographed a piece almost every year. No one aside from Fagan and Pennewell has choreographed a Garth Fagan Dance piece.

“At some point, you have to send the bird out of the nest, the bird has got to fly,” Pennewell said. “He’s not gonna micromanage your development as a choreographer. He’d say, ‘You’re going to have to fall on your face, just as all of us did.’ The fun part of the journey is trying to figure out how to get back up. It’s your time to come up with what it is you want to say.”

Pennewell was born in North Carolina, but grew up in Schenectady, with adoptive parents. He participated in gymnastics and martial arts, and learned how to move among all people. “I was seeing white people, and Japanese people, too,” he said. “I was somehow able to hang out with all of these people. I’d go to the Italian neighborhood and play backgammon, or spin a dreidel with the Jewish kids. It turns out, a lot of the Jewish kids were in theater.

At Garth Fagan Dance, Pennewell answers to PJ.

“PJ is my son,” Fagan said. “If he was my flesh and blood son, I could not love him more.” Fagan refers to himself as having been a mischievous young man. Pennewell also uses that word to describe his younger self: “I put him through some trials and tribulations. But he stuck with me.”

Their relationship filled a void in his life, Pennewell said. And for Fagan as well, he suspects. “Garth would say: if his daughter had lived and prospered, she would have been like Natalie.”

Fagan was once married; Norma was a model from Europe. They had two children, then separated in 1964. Their son lives in the West Indies. Shortly after Norma had moved to Paris with their daughter, the girl was killed in a car accident. She was 2 years, 10 months old. Fagan had stayed close to Norma through the years, and she came to New York City to see him win the Tony in 1998. She died two years later of pancreatic cancer.

Over time, in bringing Garth Fagan Dance to Jamaica and showing off what he had created, Fagan healed the rift with his father. “We fought, but we loved each other, there was not a bigger love in my life than him,” Fagan said. Although his father is gone, he said, “To this day, when I have a problem, I go back to Daddy and I say, ‘What should I do, what do you think? Blah, blah, blah, blah.’ Because he’s going to give me perfect, good advice. Not easy to get to, not easy to accomplish, but ultimately satisfying and enriching, and that’s what I apply to my dancers.”

Tyzik grew up in Hyde Park, a Hudson River town north of Poughkeepsie, where Roosevelts and Vanderbilts walked the streets. That wasn’t Tyzik’s street. “I came from a very dysfunctional home, and music was my salvation,” he said. “I sat at a room with a piano, and I poured out my emotion into sound that I was plunking down on a keyboard.”

Tyzik found that, if he couldn’t get approval at home, he could get it from others. He was a sixth grader, playing for adults, and they were applauding.

“I thought, you know, this makes people feel good, so that was my motivation,” Tyzik said.

He was playing taps at ceremonies where people took seriously what a guy with a trumpet was doing; standing alongside four guys with uniforms and medals, as well as Eleanor Roosevelt and her son, John. “I realized you meet some incredible people through music,” Tyzik said.

He was working at a car wash during high school, earning $1.05 an hour. Then some young musicians he knew landed a gig where they were going to play for two hours and earn $15 each, plus food and drink. “And I thought, maybe you can make money at music,” he said.

“So it came from a place of solitude to a place of… well, this could be an interesting life.”

Tyzik remembers the first time he saw Fagan. It was 1969, he was a student in an Eastman School of Music summer ensemble, playing a Miles Davis piece to accompany a troupe of Fagan dancers.

“I was so enthralled with the human body, the movement to music,” Tyzik said. “But with also the musicians being right there, it was an incredible experience. It was a dream of mine at that point to work with Garth.”

That dream would take decades to materialize.

“I have to say, I was not confident at the time as a musician, I scared myself off,” Tyzik said. “I didn’t think I could live up to the amazing things that Garth was creating.”

All of this comes together at “50 Years of Garth Fagan Dance,” for which Fagan has chosen a Brahms piece, a cello concerto, a Jelly Roll Morton piece, and a Spanish-flavored piece by Villa Lobos.

“So there’s great music there of an incredible variety," Tyzik said. And the fact that over time, even though I’m known here as the pops conductor, I have conducted a fair amount of classical repertoire, I have a feel for all that. I was really excited for the variety of music he chose.”

That is, again, where Fagan is: “Reaching for a unique, deep, rich, shattering something.” Seeking it from “a place of solitude.”

“He’s still in Rochester, when he could be in New York or Chicago or San Fran,” Pennewell says of Fagan. “He found this area that felt spiritually right, the environment. Oatka Park, the lakes and the Finger Lakes, and the Southern Tier. When things got rough he would take his sports car and drive fast and go to the Oatka trail and chill out.

“And when he’s creating, you can’t call him, he takes no calls. He needs that solitude to find that kernel. That new thing, that’s not repeating himself.”

Tyzik is principle Pops conductor with The Detroit Symphony, The Oregon Symphony, The Florida Orchestra and The Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Yet, like Fagan, he chooses to live in Rochester. A good place to raise his daughter. And he cites “endless possibilities.”

“With the RPO, I’ve had my own orchestra for 26 years now,” he said. “I’ve written 400 things for them to play, I can come in and experiment, I can say I want to work with Fagan and they say, ‘OK, let’s make it happen.’”

Pennewell calls Fagan a humanist. “What you want to see onstage are people who are dancers, not dancers trying to portray certain kinds of people,” he said. “Everybody maintains their individuality, but they work together for a common goal. This is an example for what society is all about.”

And it’s about moving forward. That after 80 years, 50 of them here, this is no time to stop.

“I had to accept all of the dramas, that human beings who are my canvas, and my oil,” Fagan said. “And when I painted with canvas and oil they never spoke back to me and told me…” – and here, Fagan affects a comically whiny voice – “‘Oh, my boyfriend is gone. Oh, my girlfriend…’

“No, none of that. But with human beings you have to bring that in, you have to absorb it, and keep the work going forward,” he said. “But still give them a nice hand, a pat, whatever, and get them out of this doldrum. And let them know that history has proven to you that this, too, would pass. And just roll up your sleeves and fight it, and find a way to improve it. Amen.”

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.