Garth Fagan has been delighting audiences for more than 50 years. Called by critics "a true original," "a genuine leader" and "one of the great reformers of modern dance," he is founder and artistic director of the acclaimed Garth Fagan Dance, now in its 40th-anniversary season. His numerous honors include winning the 1998 Tony Award for best choreography for The Lion King.
He also choreographed the first fully staged production of the Duke Ellington street opera Queenie Pie at the Kennedy Center in 1986, and the opening production of Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival's Shakespeare Marathon: A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1988. He has earned commissions from Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, New York City Ballet and the José Limón Company. The Root talked with Fagan before he began his new season at New York City's Joyce Theater — Nov. 9 through Nov. 14 — about his appreciation of women dancers, his influences and how the arts are faring in the tough economy.
The Root: What can audiences look forward to this season?
Garth Fagan: Our celebrating 40 years in dance. It's amazing to me. We've been cheered around the world. I'm also choreographing a beautiful solo in my new work for Nicolette Depass to Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1, played by Yo-Yo Ma. She's just had a baby and has grown so much as a person. It's wonderful to see what she does with it.
TR: You have always featured women in your choreography, giving them as challenging and athletic movements as your men. Is there a reason for this?
GF: It probably all goes back to my mother and aunts in Jamaica. They were so warm, loving, strong, smart and capable. I never saw them as less than men or second-class citizens. My female dancers are just as strong as my men, and they love being able to show it. I'm all about gender equality. My women can kick ass.
TR: And what about your men?
GR: Athletic, virile. Full of testosterone. They're a big part of the new dance, too. In one section, I use a drum piece by Bonga Kwenda, not all percussion, more melodic. Very subtle and very beautiful. The work ends with all my 13 dancers and the music of Gerald Albright, that '70s sound.
TR: The program announces a new work by your dancer Norwood Pennewell. How did that come about?
TR: What's distinctive about your troupe?
GF: Most companies are ballet-based. I don't use its forms. I want to push the envelope. I bring together African, Caribbean and modern dance in my style. It's strongly rhythmic and abstract. I also have dancers that range in age from their early 20s to Steve Humphrey, who is 58 and still remarkable. Older dancers know more about life, and they bring that to their performances.
TR: Where do you get your inspiration?
GF: Music. I always listen to music. I look for unusual pieces. I particularly love jazz. It's been great to work with Wynton Marsalis. I'll work with him again in a couple of years. Next week I'm going to New Orleans, and the first thing I'm going to do is check out where Ellis Marsalis is playing. I'm also crazy about classical music. Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter is one of my favorites. She speaks to me. I have to thank my parents for my musical ears. They dragged me to all kinds of concerts. I remember going to hear pianist Vladimir Horowitz. Things like that influence you forever.
TR: What have been your strongest influences in dance?
GF: The Martha Graham Company of the '60s and the Ailey company back then. I studied with both Martha and Alvin. I loved Merce Cunningham and his company and his musicianship. I love Balanchine's work, the way he used music, his incredible movement invention. I remember seeing Suzanne Farrell and Arthur Mitchell dance his Agon. It's one of my favorite ballets. I'm a big fan of the poet T.S. Eliot, too. I find more and more in his works as I grow older.
TR: What else has influenced you?
GF: African art in all its complexity. I go to galleries often. I've been collecting art for some time. I worked with the sculptor Martin Puryear on my piece Griot: New York. Romare Bearden was a friend. Men like him and Alvin Ailey and Martin survived all the problems of people of color. Just knowing them taught me a lot. Romare was so supportive of me. And he was never bitter. It brings tears to my eyes when I think of how generous he was to me as a youngster.
TR: It's tough economic times for the arts. How is your company doing?
GF: Like everyone, we've seen a decline in bookings. NEA programs have been cut. But I'm very proud to say that unlike most dancers, mine get salaries and health insurance. We'll keep going. There's always another dance to be made. Go to GarthFagan.com for a performance schedule and ticket information through 2011.
Valerie Gladstone, who writes about the arts for many publications, including the New York Times, recently co-authored a children's book with Jose Ivey, A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student.