Sunday, March 19, 2000

'Lion King' choreographer brings his pride to Aronoff




BY CAROL NORRIS
Enquirer contributor

        At first they went by the name Bucket Dance Theater. “It was the early '70s. There were bands with names like the Grateful Dead. We were trying to call attention to ourselves,” Garth Fagan says.

        Now it's simply Garth Fagan Dance, a company known around the world for its original modern dance style and its own technique. The company appears in Cincinnati for the first time Friday and Saturday.

        Since Mr. Fagan won a Tony Award in 1998 for choreographing The Lion King on Broadway, his theater dance work has become familiar to a greater audience.

IF YOU GO
  • What: Contemporary Dance Theater presents Garth Fagan Dance.
  • • When: 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
  Where: Aronoff Center for the Arts, Jarson-Kaplan Theater
  • Tickets: $17 and $20; $9 students and seniors; at the Aronoff box office, Ticketmaster outlets or call 241-7469.
        “In New York, 2,000 people see Lion King a day. We have two shows up in London, one in Japan, and we're opening one in Toronto. It's a different kind of attention than what my company is used to,” he says.

        Not that his company of 12 doesn't get its share of attention. He's built an eclectic repertory in 30 years, all his original works, with a mix of influences — Caribbean, African, American Indian and jazz. That keeps them on the dance concert circuit more than half the year.

        We caught up with him and his company by phone in Palo Alto, Calif., far from home in Rochester, N.Y.

        Rochester? Why not New York or Los Angeles?

        “I wanted a smaller community for my kids. My one son died, but that's where they grew up,” Mr. Fagan says. And that's where his other son and grandchildren still live, and where he retreats between concerts. “I garden and I keep birds — finches, small parrots and cockatiels,” he says.

        And it's where he makes dances in a huge studio with stained-glass windows. A former ballroom, it has no mirrors and no barres to hold onto and super high ceilings. Unlike most dancers in rehearsal and class, his don't have the luxury of checking themselves in the mirror. It's a conscious decision. He wants them to get the movement from the inside out.

        When he first started developing his own company, he took non-dancers.

        “I didn't want to waste my time untraining people. I wanted to build my own style,” he says. It's a style that reflects his native Jamaica, where he learned Caribbean dances as a kid and relished growing up surrounded by mountains and sea. He says this background is what gives his work its distinctive look.

        “When you see us move, you know it's a Garth Fagan work,” he says. “I think the blend of modern, ballet, African and Caribbean — which gives the dances speed, weight, inner landscapes, polyrhythms and use of the torso — is where the distinction is.”

        He admits that initially he had no interest in formal dance training — only in beautiful ballerinas. Eventually, dancing became as rewarding as watching women. “It got in my blood,” he says.

        He went on to dance with the Jamaican National Dance Company, before leaving the island for Wayne State University in Detroit, and eventually New York, where he trained with Martha Graham, Pearl Primus, Alvin Ailey and others.

        The question “Do you still dance” was greeted with a roar. “I'm a grandfather,” Mr. Fagan, 59, says. “I put all my time and energy in the studio and turn the dancing over to the younger ones.”

        He's a grandfather who sports a ponytail and has a flair for exotic clothes. And one who spends hours in a dance studio, which he says can take a personal toll.

        Mr. Fagan's work is in demand. He recently created new works for New York City Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem. It's heady business when New York City Ballet calls for a ballet, and it's a long haul to reach that level.

        Mr. Fagan, who is divorced, says, “I sacrificed a lot of my life to get to this point. I'm in the studio every night. I'm very focused. From the artistic perspective, that's good, but not from a family one. I didn't make it to all the birthday parties and baseball games.”

        Lion King has opened new doors. Without giving details, he says other Broadway shows are in the works.

        But it's his company that will continue to get the most of him. “The hardest part of all this is the fact that you're dealing with human beings with all the frustrations of their daily lives and problems. Keeping them in harmony is the tough part. But after all your work, when you see human beings grow, that's the best part,” Mr. Fagan says.



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