Fagan's Bucket Dance Theatre - an original. More complex and visionary than Dunham or Ailey

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Garth Fagan's career in dance began when he left his native Jamaica as a teen-ager to tour Latin America with Ivy Baxter and the Jamaican National Dance Company. Later, in New York City, he studied with Martha Graham, Jos'e Lim'on, Mary Hinkson, and Alvin Ailey. Then, in 1970, as a professor at the State University of New York at Brockport, Mr. Fagan began teaching a handful of untrained dancers at the university's inner-city center in Rochester. Some of those students still remain at the core of Fagan's Bucket Dance Theatre, an ensemble with rare congruity of style and technique, with profound expressiveness and unlimited energy.

The company, based in Rochester, N.Y., will be making a New York City stop Nov. 1-13 at the Joyce Theater in a tour that includes Maine, Ohio, and Florida through the rest of this year.

The Fagan company does not look like any other dance group. The ``Fagan technique'' that underscores every aspect of the company's performance is so subtly distinctive that it is difficult to describe Fagan's choreographic individuality.

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On first impression, the 1981 ensemble piece ``Prelude: `Discipline Is Freedom,''' which opened the program when I caught up with the company a few months ago in Storrs, Conn., was strongly ``racial,'' with driving Afro-American energy, full-bodied movement, and highly rhythmical accompaniment.

Ethnicity, not race

That impression, however, soon falls short of what Fagan is really all about. As he has said, ``I'm interested in ethnicity and not in race.'' It is culture and not folklore that stimulates his imagination.

So, despite his unquestionable influences from such noted Caribbean dancers as Pearl Primus and Lavinia Williams, ultimately the Bucket Dance Theatre has almost no relationship to other Afro-American companies.

Fagan has created something infinitely more complex and visionary than the highly theatrical work of black choreographers like Katherine Dunham and Alvin Ailey. This daring invention becomes unmistakable a few minutes into ``Prelude.'' After its initial impact, what gradually overwhelms the energy and frenzy of the dancing is a choreographic sensibility of remarkable subtlety and sophistication.

Few choreographers use space as imaginatively as Fagan does. His stage is a vast canvas that is persistently and inventively shaped and reshaped by brilliantly conceived entrances and exits, by constantly changing groupings, by the unexpected interactions of solos, duets, trios, and quartets.

Even at its most rhythmical moments, when the audience shouts and applauds with kinesthetic pleasure, even then Fagan manages to elicit a highly theatrical response with his rarefied choreographic imagination. The leaping, bounding, undulating, and darting figures are transformed, almost magically. A driving trio shatters into three solos, until a fourth dancer ricochets across the stage and the four soloists collide and become an elegant quartet, which mysteriously comes apart and turns into four streaks of light, flying off into infinity.

The frenetic atmosphere of ``Prelude'' is nowhere to be found in the lyrical 1979 opus, ``Oatka Trail,'' performed to the slow movement of a cello concerto of Antonin Dvorak. This male trio, danced by Steve Humphrey (alternating with Jon Gourdine), A. Roger Smith, and Norwood Pennelwell, reveals the innermost nature of Fagan's lyricism. It is a rare sensibility, without a hint of either sentimentality or prettiness. In ``Oatka Trail,'' bodily grace has retained its animal dignity. It has not become romantic artifice. ``Oatka Trail'' also underscores Fagan's exceptional musicality, which never allows him simply to supplement the emotional impact of the music or merely to articulate the obvious cadences.

Fagan's choreography is a response to the music, not an imitation of it. It often interacts with both the musical line and the rhythm, but on the whole Fagan prefers to create contrapuntal movements and sequences with their own line and rhythm. The result can be emotionally shattering, as, for instance, at the closing decrescendo of the Dvorak, when the three figures alternatively glide and frantically step and gesture in utter harmony as well as complete contrast to the music.

Of Fagan's many achievements as a choreographer, perhaps the most individual is his ability to create movement that is at one moment dreamlike and still, and at the next moment frenetic and unbridled; movement that pounds in tempo with the rhythm of the accompanying score at one moment and then veers off into a contrapuntal world entirely of its own. Such signature choreographic elements were especially visible in the 1985 opus ``Never Top 40 (Juke Box)'' - perhaps the finest achievement on the program I saw at the University of Connecticut here.

The program also included ``Touring Jubilee 1924 (Professional),'' a typical Fagan frolic, wise and shrewd and sassy, that out-Aileys Ailey with its joyful and coy mannerisms. This delightful dance of 1982 was performed to the music of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Also included was ``From Before,'' a gleaming, swift, and fantastically arduous piece for 10 dancers.

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