Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Jamison and Fagan in conversation

How long have I been at this?

Well, look at it this way: I've been here long enough to remember seeing Judith Jamison, herself, dance Cry, the signature solo that Alvin Ailey crafted for her and brought to the stage in 1971.

I've also been here long enough to remember when Garth Fagan's acclaimed Rochester, NY troupe, Garth Fagan Dance, was still called--with far more cheek than justification--Bottom of the Bucket BUT...Dance Theatre. I recall asking Fagan about the mischief in that name which, like my own at the time, has long since been buried.

So, it was hard to keep from grinning like a fool all through 651 Arts' Live & Outspoken conversation between Jamison (interviewer) and Fagan (interviewee) last evening at the Mark Morris Dance Center. Two solid gold titans of dance, originals unlike anyone else in their field, multiple award winners, paying tribute to each other as professionals and as friends, trading gentle humor and wisdom: It was pure heaven.

As if that were not enough, another dance superstar--Arthur Mitchell--was in the house, looking remarkably youthful and handsome.

I started thinking about dignified attitude and discipline--which all three of these people have in abundance--as cornerstones of durability.

Introducing her guests, 651 Arts' managing director Anna Glass put things in perspective: "Kodak's leaving [Rochester], but the Fagan company's still there!"

Fagan and company are not only still there but still making news. Robert Battle has acquired Fagan's From Before (1978) for the Alvin Ailey troupe, a development that makes the choreographer quite proud.

"Alvin Ailey supported me, from Day One, with advice, with money," Fagan says of Jamison's and Battle's great predecessor. "He helped me and nourished me."

Still, the Jamaica-born dance artist is never one to stifle an opinion, and he's not shy about setting conditions.

"Make sure the women are not floozies," he said he admonished Battle. "Please don't work the audience with that. I've seen enough of that tawdry stuff.

"We have tawdry women in our race, but that's in the mi-nor-it-TEE. It's important that the women have elegance and sophistication."

Of his vision for his own troupe, formed nearly 40 years ago, Fagan says, "I wanted to see a company of people dancing--a nice melange on stage of human bodies and body types, not six maids all in a row."

Fagan dancers--originals, like their leader, who excel at his challenging technique and off-kilter movement ideas--have to bring more than brawn and tricks. They must have intelligence and spirit.

He also loves to work with trusted, topnotch collaborators, which leads me to the next bit of news: Wynton Marsalis, who teamed up with his longtime buddy Fagan for the 1991 Griot New York, a triumph for both men, will score a new piece for Fagan's September 2012 season at BAM. Fagan fully expects to get the music at the last minute. ("That's how musicians do it," he says, "And they think that's how dancers can do it.") Visual artist Alison Saar, whose paintings and sculpture incorporate spiritual culture of the African diaspora, will design the set.

It wouldn't be Live & Outspoken without samples of the guest's creative work, and Fagan brought two offerings that had Jamison and audience nearly swooning. Haiti-born Vitolio Jeune (who, a few years back, competed on So You Think You Can Dance) showed off the extraordinary strength, limberness and timing required of a Fagan dancer in Talking Drums, a piece inspired by the sound of the storytelling/news-carrying drums of Burundi. Company veterans Norwood Pennewell and Nicolette Depass danced an excerpt from Griot New York--the deliciously slow, sultry "Spring Yaounde" duet, an unmistakable image of sexual coupling that unmistakably honors this act. Nothing "tawdry" about it.

Near the end of the audience Q&A, Fagan returned to the theme of negative depiction of Black people in the media. In the US, he said, African-American people seem to only get attention in the news when they are sought or arrested for crime.  Meanwhile Jamaican news outlets, Fagan said, borrowing an expression from his friend Alex Haley, "find the good and praise it."

As with all Live & Outspoken events that I've attended, the focus here was on all the inspirational good that could be found and praised. For more, see the Garth Fagan Dance Web site here.

And visit 651 Arts' Live & Outspoken page here for complete details about upcoming events:

Playwright Esther Armah interviewing A Streetcar Named Desire stars Carmen de Lavallade and Blair Underwood tomorrow, March 15, at Kumble Theater for the Performing Arts (free)

Musicians June Millington and Toshi Reagon on April 26 at the Mark Morris Dance Center ($20/$15)

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