Leap of Faith
For more than two decadcs, Garth Fagan's hard-hitting post-modern dance company has been performing on the high-art circuit, winning commissions and getting audiences worldwide all worked up. Consider the central duet in what might be his best work, Griot New York. A thoughtful man-tall, strapping-and a sultry woman-legs up to here, arms out to there lean and turn, splay and nest, touch and retreat.Both are shirtless. Moody jazz in a score by Wynton Marsalis wails quietly, while Martin Puryear's oversized, droopy sculpture looms in the background. In the overheated big-city hubbub of the larger piece, the duet examines what it means to be human, right here, right now, adrift in a swelter of urban heat and haze. You can almost smell the wet asphalt. In other words, Garth Fagan is not the usual Broadway choreographer. But then, The Lion King is not the ussual Broadway show.
Fagan is loaded with highbrow credentials. He's the distingwished University Professor of the State University of New York, he's won NLA Choreography Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Darace Magazin Award, and the Bessie Award, along others. As a dancemaker, however, Fagan cuts to the chase. He's a savvy showman, deft at building crafty crowd pleasers. His 1981 Prelude is a hyper version of the classroom technique Fagan has evolved over the years. Whirling chains of turns, semaphore arms that cut like machetes, massive contractions, pounding pelvic isolations - Fagan pulls what he wants from every dance style there is. Those who know a bit about dance can annotate the sources: a panoply of pan African idioms, Afro-Caribbean moves, ballet, Graham, Paul Taylor's muscular jocularity, Alvin Ailey's passionate commitment, and on and on. If you don't know anything about dance, sources and history don't matter. Audiences react in a frenzy. So: A postmodern choreographer who has been doing the multicultural thing with a company of African American dancers ends up choreographing for Disney. In a way, it's a perfect fit. And that says much about leaps of faith on both sides of the partnership.
"I didn't know anything about The Lion King when a call came saying that Disney wanted a video [of my work]," Fagan says. "I told my office to send the video, and I left it at that. But once I knew it was Julie Taymor, I thought, `If they want Julie Taymor as a director, then of course they want me as a choreographer.' I don't mean that as an ego boost, but in the sense that they weren't looking for the same-old, same-old.
"Growing up in Jamaica, Fagan had perfomed with Ivy Baxter's Jamaican National Dance Company. Broadway musicals weren't part of the scene, although Fagan enjoyed pantomimes, the British-derived theater pieces with songs and dances and stories. "I grew up with pantomimes," Fagan recalls, "and danced in some of them during my teenage ycars, when 1 was young and supple and silly and wild. I'm all of that now, except young and supple. And touring around the world with my company, if there's an interesting show in a city we'll see it. I know the musical form." And never underestimate the reach of Hollywood: as a kid in the Caribbean, Fagan loved the big MGM musicals. He has dallied in musicals before: A few years ago, he directed and choreographed Qeteenie Pie, the Duke Ellington "street opera," iu a production rhat was a big hit at the Kennedy Center.
Still, working in the commercial arena is a big step. Before Fagan began on The Lion King, he had to do some thinking. "My concern was how to keep my integrity hut still keep, the Broadway audience intrigued.
"For me it was a nice balancing act. I hadn't seen the movie of The Lion King until I was offered the job. Once I saw the movie, and I must say I went with fear and trepidation, I absolutely fell in love with it. In early discussions with Julie, it was clear that we were not going to duplicate the movie. We wanted to make our own artistic statement, hearing in mind that so many pcople love the movie. We wanted to make it a complete theatrical experience."
On Broadway, dances are short: There's a dance hreak in the middle of a song, and that's pretty much it except for production numbers. Though the form prohibited developing phrases and ideas the way he normally would, Fagan ealized he could pack "a lot of beautiful information in the time I have." With his infectious laugh and the gentle remnant of a Caribbean lilt, Fagan is relaxed and affable, chatty and even dishy. You can also tell that when Fagan decides what he wanrs, there's no messing around. "These dancers have eight shows a week, on an unforgiving stage, with sets and tracks and a rake, so I had to keep that in mind. It's not concert dance in a clear space. The challenge was to do something diat is complex from a dance perspectivc hut still have the dancers survive the rigors of eight shows a week.
"I like the color and vitality and good feeling you get with musicals," he continues. "But I always wanted the dances in musicals to be more in tune with the music. Too much ball-change, kick-turn, step-step-jump things-you see the same patterns in so many musicals. You change the costumes, but it's basically the same thing. Plus, Broadway gets a lot of mileage out of T and A. I wanted to see real dancers on Broadwav. "That's why one of my favorite scenes in The Lion King is in the elephaut graveyard, with the hyena men. The guys come out and dance up a storm. That's the real deal. Thev're all great dancers from the coucert dance world. It's a very short dance, but it brings down the house. It's got the virility, the urban sense that I wanted. And it still moves the plot forward."
Not since the days of Ziegfeild himself, the New Amsterdam's legendary early impresario, has there been a number like "Circle of Life," the pageant that opens The Lion King. An eye-filling spectacle, the number nevertheless feels effortless, inevitable. The effort behind the scenes was another story. "Getting that whole scene to work was very interesting," Fagan says with some undersratement, "because of the diversity of the animals and the characters and Pride Rock rising from the fioor. But I am like a six-year-old every time I see it. I'll ignore the hours of work that it took. I'm still fine-tuning it. The real concern was getting the cast to have animal-like movement, without that old-fashioned `I'm a teddy hear' thing. Julie's designs and costumes suggest the human and the animal, so I wanted to keep that alive. Another task was to get the zebras and gazelles dancing. We even figured out how to get a life-size elephantn traipsing down the aisles."
Fagan has been working on The Lion King for the last year and a half, while running Garth Fagan Dance, creating a new work for the company, and preparing for the group's December season in their home base of Rochester, New York. After Taymor built prototype costumes for the animals, Fagan headed into the studio and cooked up movement that worked both naturalistically and theatrically. (Having been on several photo safaris in Africa, he knew the real thing.) Fagan and his team also pored over videos and hooks. "My big concern was that die animals have that cheetah/human, human/cheetah feeling," he says. "It's so much better than somebody covered up in a furry suit going `Grrrr.' Julie lets you see the mechanics."
Fagan's stylistic tluency in The Lion King is the most impressive aspect of his work on the show. The hunky hyenas seem ripped from a rap video; the romantic "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" heads into a swony balletic style; the lionesses are gorgeous and lyrical; and the "One by One" number that opens Act Two recalls the Afro-centric moves of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. That vast palette of movement styles was a conscious choice. "We all wanted the show to be a little more universal than African perse," Fagan explains. "You can see that in the costumes Julie designed. Some have a Balinese effect, or African, or Caribbean, or whatever. What matters is that I'm giving audiences a menu of other than the usual. It's a real moveable feast."