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Casey reviews "Garth Fagan Dance: Up Close & Personal" 

Experiencing Garth Fagan Dance perform is a little bit like coming home, especially when you live in Rochester where the cutting edge contemporary dance company (now in its 44th year) also resides and works. Familiar dancers, familiar pieces, familiar Fagan -- both wise and jocular in his comments and anecdotes. Seeing the company dance in the intimacy of its own Chestnut Street studio as part of The Fringe Festival last night seemed therefore, pleasingly appropriate.

The degree of talent in this company always astounds me. The technical prowess and artistry of the dancers is New York City caliber; we should count ourselves lucky that Fagan chooses to keep his family of dancers close to home. Fagan himself is both a Tony and Olivier award-winning choreographer and more than a few of his dancers have earned Bessie Awards (the dance parallel to a Tony or Oscar). It was Fagan's work in "The Lion King" that won him the Tony for Best Choreography. And recently, "The Lion King" became the highest ticket seller in the history of Broadway shows. Kudos to Fagan for that.

What I also love about this company is that Fagan doesn't "throw away" mature dancers like so many in his field are wont to do. Instead, he plummets the depths of their life experience through his choreography. "No Evidence of Failure," part of Thursday night's program, was choreographed by Fagan last year and is set on Natalie Rogers (one of the Bessie winners) who has been with the company for decades. Fagan explained last night that the piece was a tribute to multi-tasking, modern women who put their all into everything they do and succeed.

Rogers danced with a shining vitality as did her partner VitolioJeune. I especially enjoyed part B, set to Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry." Rogers danced exuberantly, and the tenderness that spitfire Jeune exuded towards her, his onstage love, was palpable. The audience broke out into "bravos" and Fagan himself complimented their performance after they had finished: "That was an amazing performance," he said. "And I'm extremely hard to please. They just laid that out for you."

Fagan is not premiering a new piece this season, but Norwood Pennewell, Fagan's rehearsal director and another Bessie winner, will. "Afterhours," the new piece, is still a work in progress, but it is already exciting to watch and holds together nicely. Sade Bully, alone on stage for a long period, danced exquisitely, executing balances and jumps with no apparent effort. And Pennewell's complex choreography does not look easy to master. Small things, like Bully coming down from a jump and immediately flexing her foot, added interesting texture to the movement, but must have taken plenty of practicing. I liked how she imbued her movements with a yearning, searching quality that lent a tinge of mystery to the performance.

Later in the piece Bully is joined by Jeune. Pennewell obviously knows the heights of Jeune's talents for he gives him some difficult, but oh so pleasing, choreography to work with. For instance, Jeune holds a one-legged balance with his other leg fully extended, goes over into a backbend before letting himself start to fall backwards, then initiates a body twist and breaks his fall with his hands. Kinetically thrilling.

"Garth Fagan Dance: Up Close and Personal" will show again Friday, September 26, and Saturday, September 27, at the Garth Fagan Dance Studio Theater. 7 p.m. $16.

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