Garth Fagan is the founder and artistic director of Garth Fagan Dance, now celebrating its 45th Anniversary Season. Fagan was born in Jamaica and moved to the US in the 1950s. His choreography is a fusion of modern dance, ballet, Afro-Caribbean dance, and social dance. Among the awards bestowed upon Fagan are the 2001 Commander in the Order of Distinction of Jamaica, the Prime Minister’s Award by Jamaican Prime Minister P. J. Patterson, the Artist of the Year Award from the Arts & Cultural Council for Greater Rochester, and in 2012, Fagan was named one of America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures by the Dance Heritage Coalition.

Presented by the Ebony Repertory Theatre’s DANCE@THE HOLDEN, one feature that was most notable in the program presented at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, was Fagan’s rich and varied choice of music. There was the jazz music of South African composer Abdullah Ibrahim and American composer Max Roach. He choreographed to the Estonian composer of classical and religious music, Arvo Pärt and, for his tribute to the late dancer/choreographer/actor Geoffrey Holder, Fagan turned to the steelpan music of Trinidad born Robert Greenidge. Fagan’s musicality shone throughout the evening as he moved his dancers in and around a composer’s tempos and rhythms, never satisfied to simply visualize the music.

Choreographed in 1981 and revised in 1983, Prelude is set to the music of Abdullah Ibrahim and Max Roach. It evokes memories of American Ballet Theater’s Etudes, an homage to ballet training choreographed in 1948 by Harald Lander. Prelude is Fagan’s homage to his personal dance heritage and it highlights the technical talents of his company. Prelude begins with dancers stretching out on the floor, moves to classroom exercises and culminates into phrases moving diagonally across the stage that are truly astounding. Most notable is the triple phrase across the floor with super-fast turns that include arm and torso movements. These are accomplished with amazing rhythmic and technical accuracy by the dancers.

Garth Fagan Dance in Norwood Pennewell’s Moderate Cease – Photo by Erich Camping

A Moderate Cease was created last year by Fagan’s rehearsal director/assistant Norwood Pennewell, who also performed many lead roles in the company. The work, set to music by British composer William Walton, has a remote serenity to it. It opens with six dancers in a circle, quietly moving in unison. One by one they peel off into individual phrases until only the exquisite Adriene Barber is left alone to perform a beautiful and moving solo. Barber’s solo is introspective and one in which she never emotes, but allows the choreography to speak for her. She is replaced by Nina Price, Vitolio Jeune and Guy Thorne in a trio that further highlights Fagan’s musicality. The trio works counter to the music; their fast jumps working against but also in tandem with the composer’s serene landscape. Barber returns, joins in and works with the other dancers. Eventually the six characters return to the opening formation, a circle of life; a gentle end. A Moderate Cease is a beautiful work with costumes by Keiko Voltaire and lighting by Lutin Tanner that enrich the quiet nature of Pennewell’s vision.

Life: Dark/Light (excerpt) is a subtly humorous work choreographed by Fagan in 2005. Costumed in lovely white sheer jump suits with a pale layer of red underneath, the work begins with Barber walking back and forth on a diagonal. She is joined by Sarah Herbert, Nina Price and Rishell Maxwell, also walking. As they progress, each begins to interrupt their strolling with a movement that eventually builds into a longer phrase. The women then perform their phrases separately and together. The section is like watching Fagan put together a jig saw puzzle to create a scenic vista. As the women leave they are replaced by six men: Guy Thorne, Pennewell, Jeune, Wynton Rice, Andrew David O’Brian and Le’Tiger Walker for a high energy section of leaps, turns and jumps. Again, Fagan works his musical magic with four separate solos moving together and duets that resemble a social dance event. The music is by American jazz composer Billy Bang and the costumes are by Mary Nemecek Peterson. The Lighting Designer is C.T. Oaks.

Natalie Rogers, Vitolio Jeune in Garth Fagan’s In Conflict – Photo by Paula Summit

In Conflict is a wonderful showcase for the dancing and acting talents of Natalie Rogers, who has been with Garth Fagan Dance since 1989 and who is the company’s Assistant Rehearsal Director. The work makes it clear that Fagan and the music of Arvo Pärt were meant to be united. Fagan understands this composer and he uses Pärt’s music to weave a story of internal conflict and resolve.

The solo for Rogers is a dance in and of itself. It is complete, and Rogers’ performance is superb. Fagan moves on, however, with a moving solo for Vitolio Jeune and a group section that feels like a separate, but satisfying work. He brings the two together, however, through a beautiful stillness.

Garth Fagan Dance – “Geoffrey Holder Life Fete…Bacchanal” – Adriene Barber, Norwood Pennewell – Photo by Erich Camping

Fagan closes his program with a tribute to dancer, choreographer, director, designer, actor and painter Geoffrey Holder. Holder was married for 59 years to the amazingly beautiful dancer artist, Carmen de Lavallade. Holder was very influential in Fagan’s life. We saw only an excerpt, however, of Fagan’s Geoffrey Holder Life Fete…Bacchanal, and it felt incomplete. The most memorial part for me was the touching opening duet that pays homage to Holder and de Lavallade’s iconic partnership. The duet was accompanied by the telling of Holder’s final moments, spoken by his son, Leo Holder. The words that resonated with me were as Holder lay on his death bed he said to this son, “I am not afraid. Death does not change who you are.” Leo Holder said that his father died fully alive. It is a powerful statement and homage to an incredible man.

Fagan’s tribute to Holder ended with a festive Carnival-like section filled with images of familiar Trinidad and Tobago dances like the Calypso and the Limbo. The company consists of high-powered and talented dancers, this concert proves that Garth Fagan is one of this country’s finest dance artists.

To visit the L.A. Dance Chronicle Performance Calendar, click here.