writers on dancing



Garth Fagan Dance
Rose Theater
New York, New York
November 9 and 11, 2005
by David Vaughan
copyright ©2005 by David Vaughan

There were some empty seats in the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center for the single performance of  “Griot New York” on November 9th. This was too bad, for this is a magnificent work, one of the most distinguished collaborations of recent years: choreography by Garth Fagan, music by Wynton Marsalis (played live by him and his Septet), design (a stroke of genius, this) by the great American sculptor Martin Puryear. “Griot” was first performed at BAM in December 1991, and then was the subject of a PBS “Dance in America” program in 1995, but since then has been seen in New York only in excerpt, usually without live music. In its entirety, it looked even better this time.

“Griot” is a West African word for “storyteller,” but this is not a narrative dance; rather, it is a series of poetic tableaux of life in the city, sometimes public, sometimes private. Before it begins we hear Fagan’s voice reciting the poem that was his original inspiration—he sent it to Marsalis to evoke the kind of imagery he had in mind. (Unfortunately, this was largely unintelligible at the Rose, though one could read it in the program.) We are not told if he also submitted it to Puryear, whose sculptural set pieces—implements, objects, architectural elements—add another layer of metaphor to the piece. The vocabulary Fagan has developed is a fusion of constituents of modern dance, Afro-Caribbean dance, jazz, even ballet, all subsumed into a personal language. It is characterized by intricate polyrhythms, complex isolations, off-balance positions held motionless, even on relevé, abrupt changes of direction and speed, body shapes that often seem to hang in the air, transforming as they do so.

The ensemble sections depict the lonely or celebratory crowd, from which individuals emerge. The lead couple, Norwood Pennewell and Nicolette Depass (in the role originally danced by Natalie Rogers), each perform solos, and “Spring Yaounde,” a lovers’ duet, in which their nearly nude bodies are interlocked so closely that they almost become one organism; the dance is at once passionate and profoundly spiritual. They are joined in a joyous finale by Sharon Skepple, becoming a kind of threesome chorus line. (The whole final section had to be encored.)

No less moving is Fagan’s new work, given its first performances in this all too brief engagement, “Life: Dark/Light,” which I think is some kind of masterpiece. Kurt Jooss’s “The Green Table” was rightly recognized in the recent ABT season as a still timely indictment of war’s folly and tragedy. Fagan’s piece is also implicitly anti-war, in part in abstract terms—Billy Bang’s jazz score (also played live) is taken from a CD entitled “Vietnam—The Aftermath.” But the central duet for Norwood Pennewell and Bill Ferguson could not be more explicit, as its subtitle “KIAMIA,” an acronym for “Killed in Action, Missing in Action,” makes clear. In costumes based on fatigues in camouflage patterns, the two men first perform military movements—marching, strutting—but these are displaced by agony (“the struggle that precedes death,” as the dictionary says), and finally by redemptive comradeship. The third movement is an affirmation of hope, in a duet for young lovers (Annique Roberts and Guy Thorne) and a solo for Sharon Skepple that is literally incredible, in the sense that you cannot believe your eyes as she holds long-sustained extensions against dislocations of the torso.

Fagan is known as a black choreographer, but the essential humanism of his work transcends the limitations this might imply. The epigraph of his signature étude piece, “Prelude,” “discipline is freedom,” can stand as a motto for the work, and the company, as a whole. The dancers are as impressive as ever in their virtuosity and dedication: Skepple, Ferguson, Pennewell (first among equals), and the amazing Steve Humphreys (of the original “Bottom of the Bucket, But” company) are veterans by now. The luminous Natalie Rogers and the enigmatic Chris Morrison are much missed (Rogers still runs the school), but as always there are talented newcomers. In particular Guy Thorne, who joined as an apprentice two or three years ago, has already emerged as a new star.              

Volume 3, No. 43
November 21, 2005

copyright ©2005 David Vaughan



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last updated on November 21, 2005