garth fagan

Norwood Pennewell Nicolette Depass in Garth Fagan's "Griot New York"/Courtesy Garth Fagan Dance

By Angela Allen

After jazz musician Wynton Marsalis watched the love duet “Spring Yaounde” in rehearsal, he tore up the music he’d written for that section of “Griot New York.”

The duet was the most beautiful dance he’d seen, Marsalis told Garth Fagan, “Griot’s” creator. And the third dance in the full-length piece, “Yaounde” features a novel kiss that travels from chin to mouth to forehead while dancers pull off leg extensions demanding Herculean off-center balancing. Marsalis was blown away.

“He sat down and composed a new piece with one hand on the piano and the other on the trumpet,” Fagan, 71, said in late February from his home in Rochester, N.Y., where the Garth Fagan Dance company is based. “It was a magical day.”

That exhilarating moment occurred more than two decades ago, when Fagan, Marsalis and sculptor Martin Puryear were cooking up “Griot.” In 1991, the almost two-hour piece debuted at Brooklyn Academy of Music, prompting reviews that praised Fagan for advancing modern dance’s vocabulary with fresh choreography. The New York Time’s Anna Kisselgoff called his work lyrical, idiosyncratic and original.

I would add profoundly human and intensely physical.

Portlanders had a chance to see Garth Fagan Dance bring back “Griot New York”  at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in late February, a joint presentation of the Portland Jazz Festival and White Bird Dance, fitting for a Marsalis-Fagan collaboration.

“Griot” holds up two decades later, if the applause and post-show chatter were indications. Will it be a contemporary dance classic, the signature of the Garth Fagan company and dancemaker Fagan himself? So far, it lives on with dignity and élan.

But I had to track Fagan, the man, down to make sure how he sees his piece. Artists know when they’ve let loose a warhorse, and someone like this guy with a ponytail and unorthodox choreography insists on being cutting edge.


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