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Fagan Lights Up Carpenter Center

July 22, 1996|CHRIS PASLES

While nearly 11,000 athletes were marching into the Centennial Olympic Stadium in Atlanta on Friday, choreographer Garth Fagan from Rochester, N.Y., was locally celebrating his company's silver anniversary with some of his own special brand of dance-without-limits athleticism.

Fagan set the ground rules at the start of a retrospective program at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach, with a shot-from-guns company piece called "Prelude," created in 1981 and revised two years later.

The subtitle, "Discipline is Freedom," points more specifically to its intention and challenge. If you want to play in this league, it says, match this. This, for starters, being those incredibly steady, endlessly held, dangerously tilted balances, led off by the amazing Norwood Pennewell and quickly followed up by the rest of the 12-member company. It was also those lightning shifts in movement vocabulary derived from ballet, jazz, modern and Afro-Caribbean dance.

The work (to Abdullah Ibrahim and Max Roach) hit a high point with a sequence in which dancers spun dazzlingly down the stage diagonal, their hands and arms whirling about them. They looked like planets or stars in orbit.

This movement vocabulary, especially a signature deep arabesque, recurred throughout the evening, as did the rigorous, geometrical floor patterns and, less happily, a structural predictability.

Fagan found individualizing movements for his dancers, and yet he liked fluid shifts between them as individuals and as members of groups. They could often be both in the same dance.

In "Shackles" (to Brahms), for instance, one section of the new five-part "Mix 25," which had its premiere in New York in April, Pennewell, Natalie Rogers, Chris Morrison and Sharon Skepple were stacked tightly together, one behind the other. Any movement by one became a movement by all four. Sometimes they broke away to be independent, but tended to return to the original bonding.

So, too, bonding predominated in the "A Trois" section (to Cage), with Pennewell, Rogers and Morrison keeping a sculptural relationship. On the other hand, "In the Beat/On the Moment" (Marsalis) and "Give Thanks" (Foday Musa Sosa) allowed more individuality.


"Prayer," the opening of the piece (to a haunting Marsalis solo), showed a strongly expressive Rogers shifting between confident control and little bursts of anxiety.

Bonding in tight clusters also occurred in "River Song," from "Earth Eagle First Circle" (1995), in which music by the late jazz pianist Don Pullen began to overlay then merge perfectly with an Indian song chanted by the Chief Cliff Singers. The groups occasionally dispersed into individuals, but the movement evolved most powerfully (in size, speed and dynamic) as the clusters returned.

Fagan presented no overt dramatic story, even when one might be suggested with a title like "Oatka Trail" (1979), referring to a Seneca Indian trail near the company's home. But here Steve Humphrey, Morrison and Pennewell only obliquely evoked a vanished culture. Rather, the movement itself reinforced the melancholy of the adagio from Dvorak's Cello Concerto. Their gesture of wrists slapping and breaking apart, almost as if catching and releasing something, somehow in this context became supremely sad.

Equal sensitivity to music was evident in "From Before," the earliest piece on the program, dating from 1978. Only here, Fagan found wonderfully inventive ways for his company to mirror the speech rhythms in Trinidad composer Ralph MacDonald's choral and steel-band music.

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