Garth Fagan 1940-
Jamaican-American dancer and choreographer. Jamaican-born, he was educated at Excelsior High School, studied with Ivy Baxter and left the island to dance with her company. Settling (1960) in Detroit, he attended Wayne State Univ. (grad. 1968) and studied with such dance luminaries as Pearl Primus, Martha Graham , and Alvin Ailey .
In 1970 he founded his own company, based in Rochester, N.Y., and subsequently called Garth Fagan Dance. Working with this group and creating at least one new dance annually, he has established a signature style that combines the solidity of modern dance, the precision of ballet, rhythms and torso-centered movements from African and Caribbean sources, and an element of postmodern experimentation. He has also choreographed pieces for other dance troupes. Fagan leapt to wide public attention when he created the dances for the Broadway musical Lion King (1997) and won a Tony Award. Since 1972, Fagan has been a professor at the State Univ. of New York, Brockport.
It has been nearly 30 years since the Jamaican-born Fagan graduated from Wayne State University in Detroit and accepted what he expected would be a temporary position at the Brockport campus of the State University of New York, just outside Rochester. His devotion to dance--ignited during his formative years in Kingston and augmented by his parallel lives as both dancer and student in Detroit--was about to take full flight.
Fagan was entering academia to satisfy the strict expectations of his Oxford-educated father, who was Jamaica's chief education officer. However, ever since his teenage years--when a gymnastics class had lured his attention away from soccer-he felt driven to dance. While still in high school, he studied and performed with the Jamaica National Dance Company, led by Ivy Baxter. He also took classes with Pearl Primus and Lavinia Williams. Jamaica's national company toured extensively throughout the Caribbean, including a performance at Fidel Castro's inauguration in Cuba, in 1959.
"Ivy Baxter was very seminal because she was my first dance teacher," says Fagan, "and she was one of the first people in the Caribbean, if not the first, to realize the value of our dance vocabulary. She had studied modern dance in Germany with Sigurd Leeder, so she was one of the first people to integrate the element of Caribbean dance--which is a folk-based dance with lots of African roots--into modern dance.
"She was a stickler for detail. We left rehearsals at 1 and 2 o'clock in the morning because we stayed until we got it right. She also showed me A Dancer's World, by Martha Graham, which was so articulate and so clear. I'd never seen men dance like that before. [Graham's] men were very virile and very male. I also saw Mary Hinkson, my first overseas-accomplished dancer who happened to be black. She is my mentor and patroness and saint and goddess right now. She was a Martha Graham star. She was so beautiful and sublime; she is still beautiful and sublime."
Discipline and academic excellence were paramount in the Fagan household, but there was also a profound respect for culture. "I was brought up in a family that believed in the arts," Fagan says. "They used to drag me to lunch-hour concerts in Jamaica. I don't know when it switched from dragging me to punishing me." He recalls watching his mother read the Bible while tapping her foot to Ellington. And it was Fagan's father who, upon returning from a trip to London, first told him about the work of Katharine Dunham: "He came back with stars in his eyes, talking about this brilliant woman and her choreography and how fabulous she was."
Yet his father disapproved when Fagan expressed the desire to make dancing his career. "'Concerned' is putting it mildly," Fagan elaborates. "My father thought it was a total waste of time. I come from a family of professionals and academics, and so why was I going to waste away my life?
"So I went to school, I got my degree, I was going to be a psychologist, but I still kept dancing. I danced with Pearl, I danced with all kinds of different people. At the time, there was no money to be made from dancing. We were 2,000 in a station wagon and 10 to a room. If I were to get paid from all of the free dance concerts that I did, I could retire.
"Around the time I was 30, I said: Oh, to hell with this. I'm going to make a dance company. That's what I see the need for and that's what I think that I can do best."
One of Fagan's responsibilities at the State University of New York is to work with disadvantaged students in Rochester.