Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, April 6, 2001

Dance instructor Nicolette Depass warms up for a
session with Hawaii students at Leeward
Community College dance studio.

Dancing king

'Lion King's' Garth Fagan
began with a fateful twist

Pros spark local dancers

By Nadine Kam

GARTH Fagan moves through life with the grace of someone who knows where he's going and is anxious to bring you along or at least set you on the right path.

Ego trips are for other people, "not Garth and Nadine," he says, and I am connected, charmed, a believer.

Fagan is the founder and spiritual guru of Garth Fagan Dance. He's best known as the guy who choreographed Broadway's Tony Award-winning "The Lion King," and if the production was magical, well, consider the source.

Fagan is in Hawaii with his troupe to perform tonight and tomorrow at Leeward Community College. While here, he offered two free spur-of-the-moment Oahu workshops last week for aspiring dancers, and non-dancers, however clumsy, who just want to move. He remembers what it's like to have been there once, even if klutziness was all in his head.


In concert: 8 p.m. tonight and tomorrow
Place: Leeward Community College Theatre, 96-045 Ala Ike St.
Call: 455-0385
Cost: $25 adults, $20 for students, seniors and military

His first attempt at dance while growing up in Jamaica was filling in for a performer in a Christmas pageant when the dancer sprained his ankle.

'Lion King' choreographer and dance guru Garth Fagan
peers from the concrete jungle of Waikiki at the
Ala Moana Hotel.

"I was an athlete in high school and my gymnastics teacher, Ivy Baxter, was also a choreographer. She asked me to fill in on a dance. Of course on a dare, because I was a teen-ager, I told all my friends I could do it without any knowledge. So I just followed her to the letter and afterward everyone told me I looked good, which surprised me because I felt so awkward, as if I had 20 arms and 10 legs."

His dancing must have looked goo to Baxter too, because she invited him to take classes at her studio, which was made more alluring by the fact that she was taking her company to the West Indies and abroad, "which was very attractive to a teen-ager," Fagan said.

"It annoyed my dad. He was an Oxford man, a professional. He thought going into the arts was frivolous. At the time, he couldn't envision where dance could take me," Fagan said. "Plus he knew I was only interested in the trips, the superficial things, because my dad really knew me."

This was the same kid who was forced to sit through concerts his parents attended. "That meant I had to sit still and be quiet, and I was very mischievous," Fagan said. "They bribed me with malted milk. But before I knew it, I was being punished. I don't know when the tables turned but I wanted to go and they banished me. It was wise parents that did that."

The turning point in his view of dance also came when Baxter showed him the Martha Graham film "A Dancer's World."

Garth Fagan Dance Company instructor Nicolette
Depass leads the way for local dancers trying their
best to stay in synch at the LCC dance studio.

"I saw men who were strong, not flitsy. I saw dances that had not just stories -- man chasing swan -- but that had impressionistic ideas, spirituality. Martha Graham called it 'the inner landscape of the soul' and that was important to me, the intangible things that only art -- not politics, not religion -- can get to, feelings, passion.

"And art can get to that place in such a beautiful, sublime way."

If this is difficult for most people to comprehend, Fagan said, "It's because our culture doesn't teach it. Schools no longer have art classes for students because society doesn't value it. Newspapers have sections every day for television and sports -- and don't get me wrong because I love sports -- but if you see arts at all it's a little bit of something and only on Sundays.

"There's a reason kids are shooting each other and it's because they're frustrated, they have no place to go because no one taught them the value of a poem to read or music that calms, not excites."

The boy who was seduced by the trappings of fame, became a man with a work ethic. He moved to New York in the '70s, dancing with "God, Moses and Mohammed, everybody." That "everybody" was an illustrious bunch that included Martha Graham, Jose Limon, Mary Hinkson and Alvin Ailey.

He would eventually create such works as "Footprints Dressed in Red" for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, "Jukebox for Alvin" for the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, and "Never No Lament" for the Jose Limon Company.

Fagan built his own company around non-dancers he met at clubs, on the basketball courts, in the wrestling ring, on the streets, at a time when most professional dancers had classical training.

"I didn't want them to have any training because I wanted them to start with my technique," he said.

Back then though, he didn't have a technique at all. He only knew that "I wanted my men strong and virile, the women more contemporary, not shy little maidens led across the stage."

Add to that the speed and precision of ballet, the fluidity of African dance and energy of modern dance. His bold hybrid style came to be known as the Fagan Technique and he remembers his first rave review in 1974 from the New York Times, in which the writer called him brilliant.

A year earlier, he had gone back to Jamaica to preview his work, and he invited his dad.

"I told my dancers he probably wouldn't come, but I had a box reserved for him because Jamaica's very class conscious, and he showed up with an entourage of 10. He came back later all sweetness and light and said what a wonderful show it was, and I was so happy because I always wanted to please him.

"I'm not sure why I was driven to go back when I did but he died the next year. He had given me his approval so I didn't have to worry about it for the rest of my life. He was able to appreciate the spirituality of my work. He was afraid it would be that shallow, 'Flashdance' sort of stuff.' "

It wasn't until about 1990 that Garth Fagan Dance began drawing big audiences. In 1993, he went on a national tour with the Wynton Marsalis Septet performing Fagan's evening-length work "Griot New York." The piece also aired worldwide as part of the 1995 PBS "Great Performances -- Dance in America" series.

In 1996, he learned that he was on "The Lion King" director Julie Taynor's short list of three choreographers for the Disney stage production, based on its animated film. Fagan had never seen the movie and ran out to rent it; he liked what he saw.

"I loved the music, the characters and the whole idea of it."

And again, Fagan found himself training non-dancers; his effort paid off in with a "Best Choreography" Tony Award and Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk awards for Outstanding Choreography in 1998.

As a result of "The Lion King's" success, the general public "who didn't know me from Darth Vader" now recognize his name and are more likely to show up at his appearances, but Fagan remains as humble and hard-working as ever. "I cannot settle. I gotta keep pushing. I love challenges."

Garth Fagan dancer Natalie Rogers (center) hops to
it with local dancers at the LCC dance studio on
Tuesday. Students try to keep up.

Klutzy yet inspired
dancers grow

Fagan's pros spur isle
folk to spring into their
training with devotion, fun

By Nadine Kam

GARTH FAGAN IS LAUGHING mightily. I have just informed him of the great pain I am feeling two days after taking the master class taught by Norwood Pennewell and the rest of the Garth Fagan Dance company.

"Ahh, but it's a good pain. Don't worry, it will go away!"

Again there's the laugh. And I had not yet gotten to the part about the bruise on my butt, owed no doubt to the rigorous floor exercises that had at least two students bolting from the room before we even got to our feet.

Few were spared the pain in the aftermath. Even the students from Nix Dance School, with their resilient 13- and 14-year-old bodies, complained of hip pains. But the class was "cool," said Ashley Mendoza, 13, "a little more advanced than what we usually do."

Mendoza was there with four friends from Nix, including Tiani Sojot, her next-door neighbor and classmate at Ilima Intermediate. Sojot was one of the few students in the class singled out by Pennewell for praise, which embarrassed her.

"Afterward, all my friends wanted to know what he said. He said I did good and to keep dancing, that's about it."

Local dancers follow the lead of Garth Fagan dance
instructors at the LCC dance studio.

Both girls started dancing hula at about age 6 and 5, respectively, and due to MTV's influence, progressed to hip-hop, then jazz and ballet through their involvement with the Nix Dance Company.

About 25 people showed up at a beginner's class last Monday -- intermediate students went Tuesday -- announced on the spur of the moment through dance schools and this newspaper.

Also taking the class was Tau Dance Theatre member Squire Coldwell, who took to heart Pennewell's talk about integrating mind and body in dance.

"It's something we forget to think about, and even though it was clear they are very serious about the dance, they made it fun.

"It was a good opportunity to come out and see a different style, modern dance with a little ballet."

Coldwell started dancing at age 24 after first studying theater. His teachers encouraged him to study yoga and movement, and, through his familiarity with nightclub dance floors, "I thought I could move," he said. "I thought I was coordinated but when I first started dancing it was like learning how to walk and I thought, OK, maybe I really can't dance. Luckily, I got a lot of support. I stuck with it and I'm glad I did."

Instructors Norwood Pennewell and Nicolette Depass
give students a demonstration.

Rosie Lopez, a choreographer and dance instructor, also took the class, entering with 20 years experience in Afro-Cuban dance, including performing at Cuba's Tropicana Club and with Carlos Santana while she was living in San Francisco.

The beginner class "was very advanced for new people," she said. "For me, it was different from what I do, more regimented vs. very free. The left side for me was beautiful, but the right side was confused."

Yet she relished the experience.

"They're very good at what they do. What I look for is spirit, expression, because dance is not just about technique, but what kind of emotion the dancers show, the communication they have with the public."

Such is Fagan's magnanimous nature that none of us felt afraid of looking foolish. A chance to learn from world-class dancers was too good to pass up. The choreographer of "The Lion King" offers the workshops free whereever his troupe performs to instill in each member a sense of giving and as encouragement to dancers around the world. He understands their dilemmas.

"Struggling dancers don't have much money. It's good to come and have a free lesson and be inspired."

I don't know if inspired is the right word. "Confused" and "lost" best summed up my feelings during the class as we rose from a chin-to-floor pretzel twist that served as part of a half-hour warm-up exercise that had us on the floor, but sweeping, swinging and turning as if we were on a trapeze.

By the end of the evening we were executing an impossibly long routine involving squatting, kicking, posing, balancing and springing into the air, with eight balletic turns tossed in for good measure.

Most of us ended up looking soggy and deflated, while the pros looked cool, strong, stoic. After two hours practicing the routine with us they were still anticipating a few more hours of rehearsal.

It was a good opportunity to see what these dancers do with "white space." Every creative individual knows that silence can be more powerful than noise, and with this troupe, bursts of staccato energy are interspersed with moments of glorious stillness. Always there is strength.

While they were as sleek as gazelles, and as intent as tigers stalking prey, I felt about as graceful as a sheep, though in the company of his dancers, I never sat straighter and was never more focused.

Fagan is unfazed by the sight of students flailing about and mangling what might be elegant moves.

"I never feel sorry for people trying to improve themselves," Fagan said. "It may look awkward, but if they keep working at it, they'll improve. They might not make it to a professional company but I support their effort and thank God that we all have different levels of talents. My singing is atrocious."

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