Garth Fagan, from dance rebel to elder statesman
Garth Fagan set New York’s modern-dance community to buzzing back in the 1970s. His scruffy Bucket Dance Theater, based in Rochester, N.Y., of all places, made a splash at the Jacob’s Pillow Festival in 1974. In 1978, Bucket rocked the Brooklyn Academy of Music with From Before — the landmark work that UW-Milwaukee dancers will perform this weekend, on the UWM dance department’s annual Summerdances concerts.
“That dance is popular around the world,” Fagan said, in an interview Wednesday,”because it has the fluidity of Caribbean dance, the polyrhythms of African, the precision of ballet and the strength and weight of modern dance.”
That blending of styles made Fagan’s dance both exciting and controversial in the early days.
“Some people think ballet is preeminent above all,” he said. “I do not. I love the speed and precision of ballet. But I have no interest in princes and swans. I want people who dance as opposed to dancers portraying people.
“I broke the rules. I bent the rules. Some people don’t like that. As a creative artist, that’s what I should be doing — but it’s very important to know the rules.”
“It changed my life,” Fagan said, of Lion King. “Many more know our company because of it. We were in Austria last year, and many people came because they had seen Lion King in London or New York or Paris or Hamburg.”
Fagan knew it would be ground-breaking and knew it would be an enduring hit. He gives primary credit to director Julie Taymor, whose vision guided the transformation from Disney animated film to the live stage, and a particularly strong and dedicated creative team.
“Everyone was at the top of their game and intent on making something really amazing,” he said. “Everyone was a member of the club.”
Lion King never would have happened for Fagan without his long history of successful experiment in dance. From Before might be the cornerstone of that success.
From Before, to a lively score by Trinidadian composer Ralph McDonald, is fast, exciting and complicated. Dancers must travel while moving the hips and shoulders independently, and must integrate the traveling, the gyrations and the general carriage into sustained, elegant phrases.That’s not easy.
UWM’s dance students have impressed Fagan and his rehearsal director, Natalie Rogers-Cropper. At UWM, dance students routinely take classes in African and Caribbean dance with UWM’s Ferne Caulker or with someone she’s trained. UWM dancers understood From Before from the start.
“I’ve known Ferne forever,” Fagan said. “These students weren’t terrified of using their hips. They understand the polyrhythms. They have strong technique and the intelligence to discern what they’re given and to figure out how to attack it.”
Fagan, a youthful 70, stressed the importance of treating dancers kindly and respectfully. He admitted making a few adjustments to From Before to make the student dancers look better. For example: He took a second look at a girl he’d cut earlier, coached her a bit, and brought her back in.
“Embracing and welcoming, that’s what you need in life,” he said.
He got a little choked up at the memory of the late Alvin Ailey, who welcomed and embraced Fagan as a young dancer-choreographer out of Jamaica. Pearl Primus and Lavinia Williams were big influences, and Fagan studied with Mary Hinkson and Martha Graham in his early days in the U.S.
“Martha made me walk across the stage 13 times, once,” he said, with a smile and a shake of the head. He mimicked Graham’s high-toned speech as he quoted her saying what she wanted: “A simple, unadorned walk.”
His dance roots run deeper than his New York influences.
“In Jamaica, the whole family danced,” he said. “There was always music and always a party.”
But his Oxford-educated father thought Garth took it too far when he left the island to tour as a professional with the Ivy Baxter Dance Company. Then Garth took it further by founding Bucket (now Garth Fagan Dance) in Rochester.
“In 1973, I had this passion to take the company to Jamaica, to see the culture,” he said. “I paid for it with my dad’s American Express card — he could afford it, and I had this plan to pay him back.
“Now, he was scandalized that I was a dancer. He thought I should go to Oxford, too. I didn’t expect him to come to our performance, but I reserved a box anyway. He came with a party of eight. After the show, he was all sweetness and light. He said: ‘If you had told me that the dances would have intellectual and spiritual substance, I never would have objected.’ He loved substance. He also said I didn’t have to pay him back.
“He died the next year. If he hadn’t given his blessing, I would have been distressed and wondering about it to this day.”
His father would have been even more proud, had he lived to see his son become one of the most important dance artists in the world. He is at least a co-founder of a hybrid branch — Afro-Caribbean Modern — of dance endeavor.
“The blend of styles was not a conscious thing,” Fagan said. “Something just overtook me. I wanted to get rid of the artifice. I’d seen a lot, and I didn’t want to do anything I’d seen before. I didn’t even want to come close.”
In addition to From Before, this Summerdances Uncovered program also comprises new dances by Simone Ferro, Elizabeth Johnson, Dani Kuepper, Janet Lilly and Krislyn World. Show time is 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, June 3-5, at the UWM Main Stage Theater, 2200 E. Kenwood Blvd. Tickets are $15, $9 for UWM staff, students and alums, at the UWM Peck School of the Arts box office, (414) 229-4308.
Looking for arts events this weekend? Find them in Barbara Castonguay’s OnStage column.