THE BLOG
10/05/2011 11:37 am ET Updated Dec 05, 2011

Surprising the Senses with Garth Fagan: Lion King and Beyond

It may just be enough to say that Garth Fagan is the choreographer of Lion King, since the show is known to have touched children of all ages over much of the world.

That the Garth Fagan Dance troupe is at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan (the corner of 19th Street and 8th Avenue) through October 9, 2011, is enough -- to my mind -- to cause one to run for available tickets, literally or of course virtually, online. Beyond or along with his work in Lion King, and the fact that the troupe is celebrating its (and of course, his) fortieth year, Mr. Fagan's work and his dancers' delivery are something delectable for the senses. They offer an array of aesthetic, emotional, and thoughtful opportunities for appreciation and wondering, as well as pure sentiment and enjoyment.

As someone who has felt inhibited by "the arts" and by those who so freely (I would probably add -- carelessly) deem to pronounce judgment, I say let's "occupy" our own authority to become involved. It feels like time to make dance, among other forms of the performing arts, accessible to people of all ages, all levels of education and all levels of economic status. For the time being, it is relevant to convey that this dance troupe is daring in many ways. It dares to be Black yet the troupe is inclusive and diverse ethnically and racially. It is contemporary but informed all the while by classical influences including music. The choreography dares to include mischief and play while being filled with a truly deep reverence, especially striking in Mr. Fagan's world premiere tribute to Nelson Mandela entitled "Madiba."

When Mr. Fagan speaks of his intention to dedicate a work to Nelson Mandela, he says, "I have always loved Mandela; as a human being after two plus decades of incarceration, he chose the path of humanity to heal his country." As a leader, Mandela is an example of overcoming conflict, even in Garth Fagan's own world of dance as he deals with different personalities and wants. He quoted Mr. Mandela in a statement also placed in the playbill, "For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." Partly because Mr Fagan and his company function within the collaborative spirit of mutuality and community, the audience feels also this aspect, and what can I say -- we probably yearn to take it home with us.

Garth Fagan has become increasingly familiar to many also for his generosity of spirit and of practice. He has dancers of all ages and as Ruby Lockhart, the equally warm executive director of the troupe told me, "Garth believes in keeping dancers through maturity," explaining that also with the techniques they have learned over years, they are increasingly able to last. Not to imply that he uses these people or anyone as work horses, since he is known to give his dancers a weekly salary and health benefits no matter whatever the current financial status of the company. He is known for collaboration, having his 52 year old dancer Norwood Pennewell remain in a crucial role in his dancing as well as in choreographing. Ms. Lockhart calls Pennewell "Garth's muse" and perhaps his successor though any thought of the latter seems far from the audience's imagination. Garth's own warmth and his philosophy are evident in the warmth of this entire company -- especially in their practice of meeting and greeting the audience after each performance. To Ruby this is "Garth's way of saying to the dancers, 'This is your audience, there's something to learn from them, and also something to give back'."

I would beckon the reader to try this medium if as yet it as been untried, and Mr. Fagan's interpretation of the medium of dance for all who haven't as yet. In an exercise -- obsessed and averse -- nation, we all too often ignore the magnificent and the gorgeous impact of the human body -- and bodies -- when imbued with expressions of sentiment, of story, of purpose and of connection. The lines and ways the hands and arms and heads and legs of the dancers connect and are angled, can seem like love stories as well as single pieces of works of art as they shift in kaleidoscopic motion. And while I am of course drawn to certain dancers who stand out for moments at a time for their grace and talent, still at the end of the day what comes through here is collaboration -- the interdependency above any single contribution.

Dance is like music in that it affords expression and meaning at times without words or despite the words, to reach for passion, as it can for compassion as well. To me it seems we would do well to utilize al the opportunities we can to open our pores to a deeper and more layered and varied sense of reality, which includes flexibility, connection and of course surprise. Not only does this dance troupe offer all of the above, but it offers us glimpses into our own mirrors -- also those that contain our own wishes for a connection that might value inclusiveness and respect above merely winning or losing. The joy of dance can be infectious, all the more when it lends us -- and inspires us to -- new meaning and manner and ideas about community.