Garth Fagan is one of the great reformers in American dance: a choreographer who has redefined and updated black dance but also a teacher who has extended modern-dance virtuosity.
Jamaican-born, and now based in Rochester, N.Y., Fagan draws movement influences from his rich American and pre-American heritage--but evidently has no use for show business traditions and priorities. Thus the two programs presented by Fagan's splendid 13-member Bucket Dance company, Friday and Saturday in Royce Hall, UCLA, utterly bypassed the limited notions that audiences often pick up of black style, black attitude, black energy, black dance.
Indeed, Fagan's "Traipsing Through the May" (on the Saturday program) included a wicked parody of one bedrock cliche of the idiom: the terminally glamorous star (Valentina Alexander) dramatically swirling her long, long skirt. And his suite "Never Top 40" (Friday), pointedly suggested that blackness is more than skin deep by collecting lush melodies from across the centuries and then claiming them all through choreography of kaleidoscopic, multicultural variety that wore its "mainstream" postmoderisms no less proudly than its "minority" Afro-Caribbeanisms.
Fagan's sophistication as a structuralist allows him to make the choreographic process transparent--to show "random" movement ideas linking up like an add-a-pearl necklace in the opening of "Time After Before Place" (both programs), for example.
Often, however, Fagan seems to use this skill to prevent the disruptive, premature audience outbursts that sometimes pass for dance appreciation. Corps excursions overlap showy solo passages and the endings of his works often deliberately subside.
Similarly, Fagan technique demands some of the most spectacular balances in contemporary dance but only occasionally do his dancers cut loose for purposes of display. Fagan named the most conventional showpiece in his UCLA repertory "Discipline Is Freedom" (Friday), and you feel the title could serve as the personal motto for any member of his company.
In the elegiac group vehicle "Landscape for 10" (Friday), postmodern spatial and sequencing gambits, Third World and New York vocabularies and Fagan's enlightened social and sexual convictions all fuse in dancing of the highest achievement and deepest commitment. But this is not an engulfing experience; it aims for something far more complex. Fagan is here making a statement about relationships, and he carefully gives same-sex partnering absolute parity. He also reverses the conventional power structure of male-female duets, demanding a strength from his women and a refinement from his men that few companies anywhere could match.
If you thought that male adagio dancing couldn't be more sensitively masterful than in Paul Taylor's "Roses," think again. Fagan keeps his men modulating in and out of impossible radically cantilevered, asymmetrical extensions and then smoothly shifting into his characteristic bursts of up-tempo counterpoint. Normally, when a choreographer needs this kind of sustained control, he uses women. Fagan has created an instrument with no such limits.
Still, you could argue that Norwood Pennewell is his ideal interpreter. Throughout both programs, but especially in the somber "Passion Distanced" (Saturday), Pennewell's restrained quality of expression and steady energy-flow almost allowed you to grow complacent about the fabulous versatility and precision of his dancing, the way his absorption in the choreography made you see it (and not just him) more clearly.
There were times on each program when Fagan's obsession with discontinuity threatened to fragment everything a piece had achieved. But without exception, Pennewell and his colleagues helped you through, kept you involved, left you satisfied. If Fagan's choreography is sometimes compelling primarily for the sense of creative integrity and risk it reveals, his dancers are simply as good at what they do as anyone anywhere.