Sunday, March 19, 2000

'Lion King' choreographer brings his pride to Aronoff

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.

  • 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.

911 operators in their own crisis
Fear and hope in Avondale
Sirens sprouting with spring
More sirens at ready
Who counts? Only those willing, able
How do they stand Pat?
Boy, 11, pleads in theft of car, kidnapping
Colson featured speaker at Catholic men's conference
Ohio exam has pupils cramming
Ohio still rated low in repairing schools
New graduation rules have schools scrambling
Patients learn survival skills
Workers' comp. bill under fire
GOP pair score points with faithful
Allegations of secrecy add up
Collection frames rich culture
Collection runs gamut of this genre, Driskell says
Works from permanent collection coincide with Driskell exhibit
Museum acquires sculpture by Elizabeth Cattlett
Summerfair poster designer did it the old-fashioned way
Freedom of the road still cheap at $1.60/gallon
CSO soloists give rousing show
Downtown Theatre Classics ambitious
He made the Easter Bunny what it is today
- 'Lion King' choreographer brings his pride to Aronoff
Louiso to chat about 'Fidelity'
New phone, drug to help disabled
Queen City's moments to shine reflected in book
Schiff's photos circle the city
The myth behind cowboy vampire
Top hip-hoppers blast Annie's
Bill would let voters cross over freely in primaries
Child support cases hinge on DNA testing
Committee plans cultural center
Democrat takes on GOP stronghold
Despite slayings, co-op program stays
Finding leader Monroe's priority
Forum studies Covington services
INS says Census data safe
Jury to hear cardiologist's claims
Scubafest to raise interest in sport
'Spark' generates glowing accolades