Short Stories

The choreographer of 'The Lion King' brings his high-energy dance troupe to Centennial Hall

Garth Fagan's assistant laughed when she heard that Disney had called her boss.

"You and Disney?" she exclaimed.

She couldn't imagine that the most mainstream of media companies could have an interest in the eclectic Fagan. A Jamaican-born modern-dance choreographer based in Rochester, N.Y., he's known for his high-energy blend of contemporary, ballet and Afro-Caribbean moves. But Disney was definitely interested. The company was translating The Lion King movie into a Broadway musical and wanted a top-notch choreographer to match the innovations of its respected director and designer, Julie Taymor.

"A spy told me I was one of three finalists," Fagan said last week from a hotel room in Dallas, where his eponymous dance troupe was starting a tour that will bring it to Tucson's Centennial Hall Wednesday, Jan. 25. (See below for more dance in Tucson this weekend.)

"So I borrowed a tape of the movie--my kids are all grown. Then I met Julie Taymor. She's a fabulous designer. She came to one of my shows. We had mutual admiration. They flew me out to L.A., and I got the job."

Fagan found the Disney economics a pleasure after years of penny-pinching in modern dance.

"It was big fun on Broadway. We had a big budget. Whatever dreams I had, they were willing to try."

Fagan won a slew of awards for his Lion King choreography, including the 1998 Tony Award for Best Choreography in New York and the 2000 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Theater Choreographer in London. And he's proud of the work, which won not only critical acclaim but a certain surprised delight that Disney could sponsor anything quite this good. "You have to be hard on yourself, but whenever I see the show, whatever country it's in, it speaks. It tells the story."

Fagan, who trained with some of the greats of modern dance, from Martha Graham to José Limón, has often used dance to tell a story. The last time Garth Fagan Dance dropped by Tucson, in 1993, the dancers performed his full-length narrative piece Griot New York. (Griot means "storyteller" in an African tongue). This time around, with the troupe celebrating its 35th anniversary, they'll dance an evening of short pieces that span the company's history. Several of the dances hint at narrative, from a tale about a Brahms romance to a comic work about a provincial theatre company to a serious piece that looks at war.

"My very latest dance is 'Life: Dark/Light,'" Fagan said. Debuting in New York's Lincoln Center in November to strong reviews, the three-part work is set to jazz music by Billy Bang (played live in the Big Apple but on CD in Tucson). Fagan often designs costumes himself, but for this dance, he tapped The Lion King's Mary Nemecek Peterson, whose designs are more abstract than the animals-come-to-life she created for the play.

The first section, Fagan says, about "love and procreation," features a "lovely duet" for Jihan Palmer and Steve Humphrey. The second, "KIAMIA," for "killed in action, missing in action," moves into the shadows, evoking the Vietnam War and its aftermath.

"There's a male duet about what happens in war--one man is ultimately no longer living, and the other carries on."

The final passage, "Light," embraces life's sorrows and joys. It begins with "four women walking across the stage. It's a plain, unadorned walk. I'm tired of women having to be sexy. But they're still beautiful. Their walks get more complex and rhythmic, then the men come on." The finale also includes "four of the most wonderful solos," and a return of the couples.

This work alone features five dancers who've won the Bessie Award for great dancing. Now some 15 members strong, the Fagan-trained troupers have been praised in Ballet Review by critic David Vaughan as "virtuosi" who can "sustain long adagio balances ... change direction in mid-air ... (and) stop on a dime."

"Translation Transition," from 2002, also features the whole company. It was inspired by the music of the Jazz Jamaican All Stars, whom Fagan happened to catch at a club in London.

"These were British kids of Jamaican parentage," he explained, "doing ska and reggae and giving it a contemporary jazz translation. You translate it, and make the transition."

The first half of the concert showcases earlier work. "Discipline Is Freedom," a group piece from 1981, is danced to music by Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) and Max Roach. "Sonata and the Afternoon," a duet from 1983 danced by Sharon Skepple and Bill Ferguson, is set to Brahms and was inspired by his life.

"Brahms and Clara Schumann, the wife of his mentor, were supposed to have had a platonic relationship," Fagan said. "It's loving and tender, but nothing happens."

"Touring Jubilee 1924 (Professional)," from 1982, is a comical piece danced to music by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band about a "pretend country company where the players are very full of themselves. It's very vaudevillian. It's a really fun piece, a sorbet."

Two well-known local artists--choreographer Thom Lewis and violinist Michael Fan--teamed up to create the original ballet Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The 20-minute work debuts this weekend with live music at Pima Community College in the annual Dance Southwest Dance Festival.

Fan, a musician with Tucson Symphony Orchestra, composed the score and wrote a narration for the fairy-tale ballet. Lewis, winner of the Mayor's Arts Award and a co-director of FUNHOUSE movement theater, created the dances. Three teenagers of the dancing Womack family, who've often appeared with FUNHOUSE, take on warring roles. Tavia Womack dances Goldilocks, the invader of the bears' house, and Sabin and Leisel Womack play the put-upon Papa and Mama Bear. Andrea Murray is Baby Bear.

"The ballet will be accompanied by a live quintet: violin, viola, cello, clarinet and piano," Lewis reported in an e-mail. "I like the music very much."

The festival is staging four concerts, but Goldilocks will be performed only on Friday night and Saturday afternoon. All the shows include a variety of performances by students from assorted local dance schools, including Academia de Baile, Cecily's Dance Tech, Dance Innovations, Dance Magnificat, Dance of Arabia, Dimensions Jazz and Tap Troupe, Gotta Dance! and PCC Shake It Up Dance Club.

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