...on his dance, his dancers --- and Ren Square
Garth Fagan's voice resonates with a deep richness; a good-humored warmth. It conveys both the vibrant energy and seasoned emotional depth that he values so highly in his dancers. Fagan chooses his words carefully when discussing his Rochester-based dance company, often punctuating his comments with an amused chortle, sometimes with one of his booming laughs.
Fagan gained significant national recognition after winning the 1998 Best Choreography Tony for the hit Broadway musical The Lion King. But it was here in Rochester, back in 1970, that the Jamaican-born dancer began his own company, known then as Bottom of the Bucket. That morphed into The Bucket, which eventually became Garth Fagan Dance, a company whose repertoire includes works that have become enmeshed in the topography of modern dance, and which has featured five Bessie Award-winning dancers (including Fagan). Fagan's demanding choreography blends cultural influences and varying dance techniques to kindle kinesthetic excitement. His works require frequent changes of body level, from the low-to-the-ground moves of traditional African dance to the elevated phrases of ballet. And his dancers regularly comply seamlessly, their transitions fluid.
Now, almost 36 years after its inception, Fagan's world-renowned company continues to remain in Rochester, gracing the city's cultural life, despite the fact that it does not even possess its own theater to perform in. Nor is an appropriate one included in the plans for the multi-million-dollar Renaissance Square Project.
In a recent interview, Fagan talked about his disappointment over that omission and the upcoming Rochester premiere of his newly choreographed piece, "Senku," which originally debuted in New York City earlier this year. An edited transcript follows.
City: First of all, I'd like to ask why you and your company continue to live and work here in Rochester.
Fagan: I love Rochester. I like the size of the city. I like the fact that it has all these universities and the Eastman, which keeps the intellectual level and the level of sophistication up. I love the fact that I can drive a few miles outside of town and see cornfields and old barns. And being here gives my dancers a better chance to focus on their work. In New York, there is so much going on all the time, so many distractions. I love solitude for my work. I don't do well with chaos and confusion. After the work, then I'll find the chaos and confusion.
What bearing does the economy in Rochester have on your presence here?
Well, the cost of living is much less here than it would be in New York City, of course. And the quality of your life is the most important thing. I'd rather live here and enjoy a high quality of life than live in a five-story walk-up in New York. Here I have my 1926 Georgian home. I love it. The Park Avenue area is just the best.
How would you describe the cultural life of Rochester?
It's growing. The Eastman School of Music is here. Hochstein is doing a good job. But we need more. It's not a vital part of life here. If we could get more people to understand how art can cleanse your spirit, refresh you, give you more perspective.... For two hours you can remove your mind from the mortgage you have due, from your teenage children.
What are your thoughts on the Renaissance Square project?
The Renaissance Square project can only be a positive for Rochester, inasmuch as it will give people another space to go and enjoy theater. It will bring jobs and money to the community. But it does not involve a theater that suits my needs. They're planning a large theater to bring in big Broadway-style shows and then a little black box theater for intimate theater, but not a mid-sized theater suited to dance.
I'm disappointed and ashamed that here at home in Rochester there's no theater where people can see us the way the rest of the world sees us. We perform in the best theaters all over the world, but here....
The architect in charge of the project, Moshe Safdie, is brilliant. World-renowned. His designs are so beautiful, so fluid. If we could have a mid-sized Safdie theater across from the Eastman Theater for us to perform in, it would be extraordinary! The Rochester Jazz Festival and City Ballet could use it, too. I have lots of friends and colleagues in the music, dance, and art worlds. We could do collaborations. Bring more press to Rochester.It would be a win-win situation.
You started your company in Rochester more than three decades ago. When you think back to those times, do you remember a lot of struggle and hardship?
Sweetie, it's still struggle and hardship. After 35 years I'm still the largest contributor to the board. We can't seem to find an angel to give us a nice big check; that's what sees most companies through. It's still difficult for the arts in America.
And with a dancer, the instrument is him or her, so if you have the flu or if you've just been in a big fight with your significant other --- there it is. You're on stage with all these bright lights put on you, and no matter how you're feeling, you'd better remember when Ms. X is going to jump out of the wings so that you're ready to catch her, or you'd better know when you're going to be lifted by Mr. X, or whatever. Dance is constant work.
You've seen to it that your dancers all get life insurance and retirement, two benefits that are not a given in the dance world.
That's right. Dancers are disrespected. People don't realize the tedious hours they spend defining their work, coming up with it, creating it, polishing it. People think they do it only because they love it. They forget that dancers need to eat, too.
Tell me about your new piece.
"Senku"! That means "keyboard instruments" in the Ghanaian language. All the music for this piece is chosen from composers who mix African and Western influences in their work. I choreographed the first part of "Senku" on one of my younger dancers, Guy Thorne. You see, all dancers peak periodically throughout their careers, and Guy was at this stage, dancing like a madman, so I just had to do a solo for him.
The second part is a duet between Nicolette Depass and Annique S. Roberts, and it shows two women doing so beautifully what men rarely do --- communicating with each other and supporting each other completely.
And there's a solo in the last part for Norwood Pennewell, my right-hand man, my muse, my rehearsal director. He's been with me since 1978 and is 47, so he's suffered more, knows much more.
Your dancers do span a much wider age range than most companies.
That is something I set out to do from the beginning --- keep more mature dancers performing. In music and theater, you have the old war horses who bring with them the knowledge, experience, and sophistication of their years. I wanted our dancing to also convey the pains and passions that can only really be understood once you've lived them. And you'll see that in "Senku."
Garth Fagan Dance performs "Senku" to the musical accompaniment of William H. Chapman Nyaho at Nazareth College Arts Center, 4245 East Avenue | Tuesday, November 28, 7:30 p.m.; Wednesday-Friday, November 29-December 1, 8 p.m.; Saturday, December 2, 2 & 8 p.m.; Sunday, December 3, 2 & 7:30 p.m. | $30-$40 (Tuesday is Benefit Night, $135 with reception, $65 without) | 389-2170, www.naz.edu/artscenter; www.garthfagandance.org.