Garth Fagan Dance performed in its Chestnut Street studio on Friday night as part of the Rochester Fringe Festival, showcasing Fagan's latest work and premiering Norwood Pennewell's fifth piece for the company. Watching the Rochester-based, internationally-acclaimed company dance in the same place its members rehearse, create, and sweat intensifies and personalizes the performance. It's also exciting to see the new pieces while they are still works-in-progress, before they are practiced and polished for the company's home season.
The big surprise of the night was seeing powerhouse Guy Thorne back onstage while VitolioJeune, the showman with the impossibly high jumps, was missing. According to Fagan, Jeune is no longer with the company and Thorne has returned after a few years away forming his own company, Futurpointe.
The evening began with Fagan's always-inspiring "Prelude -- Discipline is Freedom." This piece shows the dancers in exquisite warm-up sequences, from simple stretching all the way to great leaps, giving us a crash course on the Fagan Technique or the way he asks his dancers to move. Since there are no wings to the studio space stage, the audience is able to see the dancers sidle in along the walls and behind the stage lighting to make their entrances. Note that Fagan's dancers need little or no preparation -- no running start, for example -- for the grand jetes and other flying leaps they execute with seeming ease.
Next on the program was Pennewell's new piece "So You See."
"I'm just thrilled at the choreographer he's become while he's still boogying," Fagan said of Pennewell in the introduction of the piece.
While it resembles Pennewell's other works, this new one a pleasure to watch: the parts flow easily into one another and are imbued with a lightness, a sense of joy even -- especially the third part which is a solo for Sade Bully, a dancer who fully inhabits every inch of her lithe body with acute physical and emotional awareness. Birdlike in elegance, Bully handles the slow, sensual choreography with balletic precision. At one point she reclines backwards, lowering herself seemingly vertebrae by vertebrae, a feat only accomplished with amazing core strength. Occasionally, the choreography in this section seemed forced, like when Bully pronouncedly stamped her foot on the floor while in a held pose. But it is still a work in progress with fine-tuning to be done.
Another excerpt of "So You See" featured a group of dancers, well, dancing. It appears that they are out on the town, living it up -- something that Pennewell has done in other pieces -- sort of a "dance within a dance" if you will. The dancers were loose-limbed with plenty of hip, moving to well-chosen music by Marc Cary and Vijay Iyer. The section began with grounded, earthy movements and segued into faster and more angular jumps and movements. Again, it works.
Fagan's new piece, "Dance For/With Geoffrey," was first performed at Lincoln Center Out of Doors this summer as part of a program that was a tribute to the late Geoffrey Holder, a prodigious dancer, choreographer, painter, designer and actor. Like Fagan, Holder was of Caribbean roots. The work pays homage to Holder's 59-year relationship with dancer Carmen de Lavallade and Holder's courageous spirit even as he lay dying.
The work opened with, again, a dance within a dance as the company portrays a group of women and another of men dancing and interacting in a carnivale setting. The women swarm onstage in red blouses and black skirts, all feisty with hip thrusts and come hither smiles. Then the men swagger in, shimmying their shoulders and thrusting their pelvises. Before long the dancers are coupling up, the men lifting the women into the air while the women use their legs seductively. It seemed to be a reference back to the youth and burgeoning creative forces of Holder and de Lavallade. It is a delight to experience.
The next part, a duet between Pennewell and Adriene Barber who represent Holder and de Lavallade, was less convincing. Pennewell edges tentatively onstage and carefully slides sideways across. Then there were a lot of arm movements: he was trying to tell us something.
When Pennewell was joined by Barber, things got more interesting. Holder and deLavallade's great love and their artistry together become clear through the intense embraces, the synchronicity of their movements, and the sense they impart of defying death. At this point, Fagan's voice read words of memorial penned by Holder's son Leo. The sentiments expressed, of the longevity of love and creative work, gave added weight to the love of the represented couple fiercely holding each other onstage before us.
Garth Fagan Dance will perform again on Saturday, September 19; Thursday, September 24; and Friday, September 25; at Garth Fagan Dance Studio. 7 p.m. $18. Appropriate for all ages.