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Arts Features

Garth Fagan Dance, Eastman collaborate on anniversaries

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If you’re lucky, here’s how Garth Fagan greets you at the front door of his home off East Avenue:
“Give me a hug!”
And you do. He’s earned it.
Fagan played a major role in creating the look of contemporary dance, incorporating Black culture into the art. “I wanted to see dancers and dance movement on a stage that wasn’t existing anyplace else,” he says. “Everything was ballet-based.”
That message reached the national dance scene in 1983, in a festival called “Dance Black America” at the Brooklyn Academy of Dance. The group from Rochester was known then as the Bucket Dance Theatre. And the movements of the dancers caught the eye of a reviewer from The New York Times: “The fine company danced with the deft precision of felines on the pounce, each dancer with an electric solo of his own.”

Alvin Ailey, a pioneer of Black dance, was there as well. He knew he was seeing something different and fresh. “I came offstage,” Fagan recalls, “and Alvin was there, tears in his eyes, saying, ‘Garth, listen to that audience, you should go out there and take another bow, they’re still clamoring.’”

On Friday night, Fagan takes yet another bow, this time at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, where Garth Fagan Dance, as it’s been known for many years now, will celebrate its 50th year.


The show is a collaboration with the Eastman Percussion Ensemble and the Eastman Saxophone Project. It’s also a part of the Eastman School of Music’s own celebration of its centennial year. A pause in the music will allow for Fagan to be presented with the Eastman Luminary Award; the first one, in 2006, went to the area’s late congresswoman, Louise Slaughter.
Fagan’s home is filled with such honors, and the talismans of his art. African sculptures and masks. Portraits of Black heroes, including Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Startling art, including a drawing of a Black man and woman standing witness to America’s racial strife; between them is the broken rope used on the victim of a lynching.
Fagan is intensely interested in history. Portions of his dance celebrating Douglass, the Rochester abolitionist, will be a part of Friday’s show. But Fagan has moved through more recent history as well. He met guitar-rock icon Jimi Hendrix, who he met through jazz legend Miles Davis. Jazz is a major soundtrack to Garth Fagan Dance.
That sense of the contemporary is reflected in the work presented by Garth Fagan Dance. “It’s just not being precise about your moves, as ballet demands,” Fagan says. “But by the same time, still giving the audience speed and thrills and vigor and undulations in the back, that’s new.”
Technically speaking, last year was actually the 50th anniversary for Garth Fagan Dance. But because of COVID, last year, and much of this year, was a lost year for the company.
“It hurt desperately because people were ill and couldn’t move,” Fagan says. “Relatives were passing away, and the kids had to take care of their family and their aunts and uncles and what have you.”
So this has been a rebuilding year for Garth Fagan Dance. But no one stands still in dance anyway. 
Fagan is perhaps best known for his work on Broadway’s “The Lion King,” for which he won a Tony Award for best choreography.
“My No. 1 love is Garth Fagan Dance,” he says. “Before ‘Lion King,’ before anything else, that’s my favorite child.”
Although, he concedes, “Thanks to ‘Lion King,’ I could pay salaries to the dancers. It’s a blessing all the way.”
And at 81 years old, and recovering from laser surgery on his eyes for cataracts, Fagan hints that he’s at work on another major Broadway production. 

Yet he always comes home to Rochester.
“If I didn’t tour, I don’t think I would have stayed here,” he says. “But we go to major cities, London, Paris, Rome, whatever, all the time, and that gives me some enrichment. And then I can come home to this.”

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.

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