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Monday, November 09, 2015

Bucket Listing

Remembering Metroland Dept.: While I don’t think the body has stopped breathing, while Metroland remains in its coda, I’m exhuming some of my vintage pieces for the redoubtable alt-weekly. Here’s a preview-review combo from 1987, when I covered dance. Garth Fagan is still holding strong at 75, and his company will perform at Proctors in Schenectady on Jan. 29, 2016.


GARTH FAGAN HAD A STRAIGHTFORWARD AMBITION: Invent a new kind of dance. It meant ignoring the conservative critics; it meant developing a company free of the preconceptions of the worlds of modern and ballet. So he went to the bottom of the bucket, as he whimsically put it, created a company out of dancers her trained himself – and now, after almost 20 years at it, he’s seeing that goal get nearer.

Garth Fagan
As Anne Marie Welsh, writing in the San Diego Union after Fagan’s Bucket Dance Theater’s very recent appearance there, put it, “The genealogy of modern dance now includes Garth Fagan, the newest choreographer to add a new branch to the modern tree.”

“I like that,” says Fagan. His Jamaican heritage is very much in his voice, a voice that has the fat sound of a chalumeau clarinet. “The company is in such wonderful condition after five weeks in California that we’re ready to burn in Albany.”

They’ll be appearing at the Egg Sunday afternoon at 2 in a program that comprises “Prelude,” “Oatka Trail,” “Touring Jubilee 1924 (Professional),” “Never Top 40 (Juke Box)” and “Mask Mix Masque.”

“We got glowing reviews,” Fagan continues, “and that kind of review helps. We took a little rest, and we’re back here to enjoy this winter.”

He is based in Rochester where he also carries on the full-time job as Distinguished Professor at SUNY at Brockport. “I had that goal in mind all the time,” he says. “Right from the git-go. I know it sounds like some kind of hocus-pocus, but I could see this company in my mind’s eye, how the bodies should look, how they should approach the movements.

“And, especially, I could see what I didn’t want on the stage. I didn’t want the kind of narcissism I see too often in modern dance, where the dancer oversells to the audience.

“I saw what I wanted, what I didn’t want – and I didn’t have a clue how to do it!” Big chortle. “So I said, well, hell – I just have to roll up my sleeves and start with classes.”

He developed what is now known as “Fagan technique,” a quality that sets his dancers apart from all others. “When I started to go for idiosyncratic movement, the derision came. Critics said, Why don’t you do what’s been done? Well, I took responsibility for what I wanted and just kept working.

“And I’ve been working with talent like Steve Humphrey, Roger Smith, Bit Knighton, who’ve been with me for 16 years now. I could see the light in their eyes. So I said, ‘Fuck it, go ahead, do it.’”

The company now has impressive credentials: tours all over the world, an appearance on PBS, work at summer festivals in Spoleto, Aspen, Jacob’s Pillow, and many college performances.

In addition, Fagan directed and choreographed the world premiere of Duke Ellington’s musical Queenie Pie, and has just finished a choreographed work for Dance Theater of Harlem.

There’s a parallel between the Ellington orchestra, which lived and travelled like a big musical family, and the Bucket troupe.

“They’re a bunch of virtuosos who work together,” says Fagan. “It’s important to have that family attitude, and I don’t mean that in a maudlin sense. We support one another, but you know if you get lazy someone will kick your ass.

“I give the dancers good salaries, good treatment, we stay in good hotels – I think it’s important for me never to forget what it was like when I was a young dancer on tour.”

Tickets for the performance of Garth Fagan’s Bucket Dance Theater are $13. A student rush ticket at $7 will be available 30 minutes before curtain time, depending upon availability of seating. Tickets are available at CBO outlets and the box office at the Egg.

Metroland Magazine, 19 February 1987


AT THE BEGINNING OF “PRELUDE,” Frances Hare dances onto the stage in silence. She is dressed in warm-up clothes but her movements aren’t those of a typical dance warm-up.

“Oatka Trail” starts with Steve Humphrey in a contemplative solo; “Touring Jubilee 1924'’ brings out Valentina Alexander in a short, eccentric solo entirely in character with what the piece becomes.

These were the opening selections on Garth Fagan’s Bucket Dance Theatre program at the Egg last Sunday, a program that was as distinctive in its individual selections as it was in the choreographic voice that linked them.

There is a moment in the midst of the crazy whirls of “Prelude” in which a single performer moves slowly by, as if dancing through water. The tension is marvelous; the effect was chilling. Dance doesn’t get much better than this.

It’s so important for an artist to assimilate what’s come before, and artistic director/choreographer Fagan not only knows his dance, he also is sensitive to a variety of musical stylings.

“Prelude” is a casual-looking exercise in which each member of the company breaks out of the strictures of group exercise to assert a unique personality.

That casual sense is reinforced by the music, a selection of club-recorded cuts by Max Roach and Dollar Brand.

There also is a spirit of spontaneity about Fagan’s choreography that you’re more likely to find on Broadway than in the ballet world, a humorous explosiveness reminiscent of the work of Michael Kidd.

Ultimately, “Prelude” is an exercise of personal integrity within the context of a larger confine, very much a parallel to Fagan’s own artistic assertions in the dance world.

Steve Humphrey in "Oatka Trail"
More abstract is “Oatka Trail,” danced to the slow movement of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto.  Humphrey is joined by the duo of A. Roger Smith and Norwood Pennewell in a moving sculpture that is more often a provocative contrast to the easygoing, passionate music.

Fagan sculpts with tension as one of his tools, putting together elements of movement with a musician’s understanding of the value of every step. Who else would put a brief, frantic shuffle against a Dvořák adagio?

“Touring Jubilee 1924 (Professional)” proved that this company could Charleston probably before it could walk. To a couple of kick-ass blues tunes, we got a stylized scenario that looked like a John Held drawing come to life. Not a recreation of that antique dance, but a fresh interpretation.

The highlight of the program was “Never Top 40 (Juke Box),” an unlikely collection of tunes as diverse as Jussi Bjoerling singing “Nessun dorma” and The Melodians’ rocking “Rivers of Babylon.” Humphrey and Pennewell were joined by Regina Smith and Shelly Taplin for five dances (two solo, three quartet) that painted contrasts between the songs (two Psalms, for example, in worlds-apart renditions) and, therefore, the dances themselves.

The four worked together with a common pulse that goes beyond just coordination. Fagan’s movement style, which relies on optical illusion to give his dancers a lithe, boneless, gravity-defying quality, was here toned down to a chamber-music pitch.

“Mask Mix Masque,” the three-part finish, was limited by its material, excerpts from Grace Jones’ autohagiographic “Slave to the Rhythm.”  No doubt Fagan feels a cultural affinity with Jones, but, unlike that self-indulgent performer, he has lots, lots more to say.

Metroland Magazine, 26 February 1987

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