Garth Fagan, 68, describes the principles driving his decades-old dance company: "My first impetus was to have people dancing, as opposed to dancers portraying people. It's a subtle distinction, but it's real." His voice reveals a jovial hint of his Jamaican roots; he chuckles easily. I imagine him in the studio: grandfatherly but hip, moving and laughing with his dancers. "I wanted to go back to where dance was a part of your culture. You know: Just do the dancing, and forget the grandiose part of it." He's into collaborating with jazz musicians – the company once toured with Wynton Marsalis – and pairs dancing with music in a nonliteral way.
Fagan cites the modern dance greats as major influences, but he appreciates the precision of ballet and draws on Afro-Caribbean styles. In his work, turns and jumps lack obvious preparations. He likes surprises: "You'll see a lot of movement, and out of that suddenly comes this line." He draws this last word out so that, even though we're talking on the phone, I can almost see him illustrating "line" with his hands, like pulling infinite taffy.
A one-night stand at the Long Center on Feb. 18 will mark the company's first performance in Austin, although many have no doubt seen Fagan's choreography in the musical adaptation of The Lion King. He's bringing 12 of his 13 full-time, Rochester, N.Y.-based dancers, whom he strives to provide with stable pay and health insurance. "For some reason, [it's often assumed that] as artists, we love what we do, then that ought to be enough, or the applause of the audiences, that ought to be enough. Hell no!"
So what will these decently paid dancers perform in Austin? A program of six works, two from the early Eighties and the rest from the current decade. (Also, a lecture/demonstration and master class are planned for Feb. 17.) Fagan promises "no swans or princes" and offers some juicy details. Part of the music in "Prelude" (1981) is by Max Roach, the jazz drummer, who "loved to come and see this piece." The male solo in "Feel/Think" (an excerpt from the 2006 Senku) is "not the usual anguish and blame game that you get in such things" – it's more complex and eventually positive. "Light" (2005), to music by jazz violinist Billy Bang, "puts women in a beautiful light. ... Nobody's waiting for no princes here."
The concept behind the work that closes the program, "Translation Transition" (2002), is more cerebral, dealing with the idea that only after you translate an experience into your own terms can you transition to a new one. This is probably the kind of piece you have to see in order to begin wrapping your mind around it.
Garth Fagan Dance performs Wednesday, Feb. 18, 8pm in Dell Hall at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, call 474-5664 or visit www.thelongcenter.org.
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