Garth Fagan celebrates 45 years at the Joyce Theater

The Garth Fagan Dance Company is known for choreography that blends Fagan’s Afro-Caribbean roots, jazz and modern dance’s innovative spirit and ballet’s grace. All were in full effect during the company’s annual visit to New York from it’s upstate home for a winter season at the Joyce Theater, Nov. 3 – 8.

Opening night began with the spirited 1980s piece “Prelude: Discipline is Freedom” and ended with a celebratory thank you note to all and sundry, “Thanks Forty (Five)”. Bookended by these were a old favorites — “Passion Distanced” and excerpts from “Griot New York” — and two world premiers — “So You See” and “Geoffrey Holder Life Fete…Bacchanal.” Through it all, exuding a joyous enthusiasm, were dancers fully committed to Fagan’s unique style, like veterans Norwood Pennewell, Natalie Rogers-Cropper and Steve Humphrey and a host of relative newcomers, like Nicolette Depass, Sade Bully, Adriene Barber and Andrew David O’Brian.

What better way to open a program and set the tone for the evening than with Fagan’s “Prelude: Discipline is Freedom.” Norwood Pennewell kicks it off with vim and vigor cutting across the stage with bounding leaps and dizzying spins. The other dancers follow suit. Here and throughout the evening we are treated to Fagan’s signature moves — spinning-top turns, Jack-in-the-Box jumps, leaps that flip in mid-air, cartwheels, fast footwork where a dancer stops on a dime and perches on one leg.

While Fagan continually renews his own distinctive dance vocabulary, he has said his unique choreographic point of view reflects early years studying dance in Jamaica with Ivy Baxter, the pioneering force behind the late Rex Nettleford and the Jamaican National Dance Company. He has also credited such influences as Pearl Primus, Lavinia Williams, Martha Graham, Jose Limon, and Alvin Ailey. Together they make for a tasty stew.

“Griot New York” is a Fagan favorite. It is easy to see why as dancers fly across the stage with a lushly energetic sense of rhythm that marries Fagan’s movement and Wynton Marsalis’ music. Only two sections of “Griot” were included on this program. One was “Griot’s” duet, “Spring Yaounde,” featuring Norwood Pennewell and Sade Bully. Clad only in matching purple bikini bottoms they first appear almost as one with their bodies locked in a pretzel-like embrace. Moving slowly, deliberately, they twist and turn into and away from each other in a visually compelling duet their bodies, at times, resembling a human Rorschach test. Fagan’s duets are often amazing.

In “Geoffrey Holder Life Fete…Bacchanal,” a tribute to the late great Renaissance man, the duet is, once again, a stand out. At first there is an air of Carnival as the company surges across the stage to the music of Robert Greenidge. Women sway their hips side to side making even the fringe on their skirts dance. Men bend forward then back arms outstretched as if doing the Limbo. Then comes the duet with Pennewell and Barber depicting the loving marriage of the hearts, bodies, minds and souls of Holder and his muse Carmen de Lavallade. It is both touching and memorable.

Actually, the same can be said for the Garth Fagan Dance Company’s 45th Anniversary season at the Joyce. Moving. Memorable. Marvelous.

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