Presented by Center Stage, Garth Fagan Dance gave an inspiring and aesthetically pleasing concert in North Carolina State University's Stewart Theatre — an excellent, intimate venue for dance of this scale. The crowd was large despite the fact that State was playing in the opening night of the ACC tournament. Dance fans were far happier than basketball fans that night: Each of Fagan's dances was a winner.
The five pieces on the program offered an overview of a quarter-century of Fagan's choreographic work: the earliest dance was made in 1981; the latest was from 2006. It was fascinating to see how clear and consistent Fagan's choreographic language has remained through the years. And what a beautiful language it is. Fagan, who is originally from Jamaica, has successfully melded techniques and attitudes from ballet, modern, and Afro-Caribbean dance, with some Yoga underpinnings for balance, to create a movement style that communicates values and narrative with equal ease. The choreographer has received innumerable awards and honors, as has his company, in the 37 years since its founding. Fagan is now Distinguished Professor Emeritus at SUNY-Brockport and clearly education is still important to him. The NC State appearance was the final in a series of four across North Carolina that featured on-campus residencies, and the concert included one of the great lessons in life.
Prelude: “Discipline is Freedom,” danced to music by Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) and Max Roach, opened the program. (All music for the evening was recorded.) The idea of (self) discipline being a freeing force, not drudgery, has rarely been presented so enticingly. Both a manifesto and a demonstration of its own truth, the dance is bewitchingly dynamic. Max Roach's drums always make me think of a rain of peppercorns, round but ridged, hitting the countertop — bouncing and skittering, popping away from the surface and hopping off again to spin and roll. Unlike a spill of peppercorns, however, these sounds and movements are fully controlled. Fagan's forms depend on tremendous strength in the body's trunk — its core, its heart — and that strength allows the dancers to make lovely extended lines with arms and legs and to create crisp geometric shapes in the air. It also allows for an unusual kind of time-texturing in the dance. With the Fagan technique, dancers can hold cantilevered positions for long moments, so that poised stillness is as important as fleet motion in the composition, much as shadow is the equal of light in painting.
Fagan's visual compositions — the big forms made by blocks of dancers, the additive shapes made by layers of dancers aligned back through the stage space, the colors and lines of the costumes, the lighting, the enlivening riff of detail —all have a musical quality, much like the visual jazz of Romare Bearden. Fagan dedicated his 2003 DanceCollageForRomie to Bearden, who died in 1988. The three-part composition is danced to an exhilarating series of musical selections from Shostakovich, Villa-Lobos and Jelly Roll Morton, which speaks to the cultural range of this intellectual artist, and to that of the artist he's honoring.
If you saw your first Bearden collage after seeing this dance, you would probably recognize the artwork as a Bearden from the performance. If you were already a Bearden admirer, you would be delighted, as I was, by this homage and its ingenious conversion of the Beardenian 2-D world into the four-dimensional world of the stage performance. The greatest thing about Bearden, beyond the delicious visuals, is the work's warm-heartededness. It is warm-hearted and clear-eyed about life and people at the same time it is madly aesthetic, and Fagan's dances, and his dancers, have the same qualities.
The well-balanced program also included a solo, Talking Drums. Danced to music by Joshua Uzoigwe by the impressive Guy Thorne, it made use of Fagan's clear vocabulary — but one dancer talking to himself is not as interesting as the conversations of the group dances. Touring Jubilee 1924 (Professional) was a hoot, purely fun, a virtuoso frolic to the jamming of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The dance was full of swinging arcs and sashaying turns, of teasing syncopated prancing and enough joie de vivre to cure a houseful of blues. The evening culminated with another strong three-part work, Translation Transition, danced to music performed by the Jazz Jamaica All Stars. Here the physical language — of openness, strength, balance, extension and connection; of attentive love and joy and everyday happiness — was especially eloquent, and I left the theater reinvigorated by its message.