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Dance Review: Garth Fagan's home season opener

From “Roots” to “Afterhours”


Garth Fagan Dance again had Rochester on its feet, applauding in unabashed awe and appreciation, during the opening night of the company's home season at Nazareth College Performing Arts Center, Wednesday evening. Celebration seemed to be a strong tenet in several of the pieces performed -- that Fagan-esque shout-out to the deep currents of physical, emotional, and spiritual vitality that run through humanity and that he is somehow, on stage, able to render visible through his masterful choreography and extraordinary dancers.

The program began with "Roots" (1971), the first piece the company -- then modestly named Bottom of the Bucket, something we can smile at now -- ever performed. The name of the piece speaks for itself: the dancing is pure, unadulterated African dance combined with core elements of early modern dance. The emphasis of the movement is downward, earthbound but there are Fagan's explosive leaps as well, leaps that seem to come from nowhere with none of the preparation and wind-up you might see in ballet, for example. The music, too, is authentic. Fagan uses the work of Babatunde Olatunji & Ingoba Drums of Burundi, music with a driving beat that escalates and builds as it progresses.

The three-section piece begins with "Invocation," which features five women in traditional African garb complete with head wraps whose movement is low to the ground. They crouch in wide-legged second positions, arms angular and out to the sides, thumping feet flexed, torsos undulating. Three new Fagan dancers -- Adriene Barber, Latisia Rivera and Sarah Herbert -- do a damn good job of keeping pace with the gorgeous dancing of longtime Fagan star Nicolette Depass and the practiced talent of Sade Bully. In the second section, "Hunt," the men appear. The male newcomers, Davente Gilreath and David O'Brian, performed admirably alongside the likes of Vitolio Jeune, Steve Humphrey, and Wynton Rice. But it is the piece's third section, "Fetish," that grabbed me.

The movement swells along with the music during this last section, creating a driving, almost frenzied feel that is strengthened by Lutin Tanner's lighting design and Fagan's costumes. Costumes shimmer under shifting green, red, and yellow lighting and the men's raffia fringed head pieces swirl through the air as the dancers flail their bodies up and down. Something is going down here, be it spiritual summoning, psychedelic experience, or just plain exuberance in life. Whichever it was, the audience ate it up, roaring in approval as the piece closed.

Norwood Pennewell -- who has been with the company since 1978 and is rehearsal director and assistant to Fagan -- had the sole new piece (his fourth for the company) for this 44th season. Pennewell spoke to City Newspaper last week about his growing devotion to choreographing.

"Developing the choreography of a piece, letting it come to you, is the beautiful part," Pennewell said. "Editing the piece can be a bit like tearing your own limbs off, but I am really starting to fall in love with this process."

"He's come a long way in a few years," Fagan commented. "Of course he is a Scorpio. He knows what he wants and does things his own way. He's guided by his experience with me, but his musical tastes are far more contemporary than mine."

Pennewell uses the music of Herbie Hancock and Jacob Karlzon in his new work "Afterhours," a 25-minute piece that seems to center on the contrast between people's habitation of their personal space and shared, societal space -- not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. The backdrop of a city skyline sets the scene as dancers stroll across the stage, one by one, seemingly in their own bubbles, but eventually beginning to acknowledge each other's presence, and finally, to dance together, two as a couple, the rest as an ensemble. The piece is entertaining, easy to watch, and showcases some sweet dancing. Although seeped in Fagan technique, it is more of a departure from Fagan's choreography than Pennewell's other work to date. Pennewell is adept at fitting movement to large groups and establishing mood yet provides, too, the smaller unique movements that help distinguish a piece.

I especially enjoyed the dancing in the second section between Vitolio Jeune and Sade Bully. Jeune performed with his usual captivating exuberance and Bully moved with the fluidity of a skater on ice, gliding across the stage with her chaine turns. I liked the long lifts Pennewell put into the piece, Jeune holding Bully horizontally while spinning themselves with heel movements that speak, perhaps, of late night boogying, a letting go of inhibitions. This last ensemble section still seemed a bit long to me, but I wasn't complaining. Excerpts from Pennewell's piece "Gin" (2013) will also be shown in some of the programs this weekend.

The rest of Wednesday night's program included two more relatively new pieces from Fagan that are already firmly entrenched in the company's repertoire: "No Evidence of Failure" (2013) set on Natalie Rogers, and "Lighthouse/Lightning Rod" (2012), plus another revival "Two Pieces of One: Green" (1998). Rogers and Jeune continue to add depth to their duet in "No Evidence of Failure" which has rapidly become an audience favorite. "Lighthouse/Lightning Rod" features Alison Saar's amazing sets and some electrifying dancing. "Two Pieces of One: Green," a modern/post-modern piece was new to me and deeply moving, especially the duet between -- again -- Rogers and Jeune.