SOON after Garth Fagan tuned in to the presidential inauguration last January, a fragment of poetry by Maya Angelou set his imagination ablaze. Mr. Fagan says he began to envision a new dance evoking multiple layers of meaning from these two lines:
``...arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.''
There was a time when Ms. Angelou's words might have served as a credo for Garth Fagan Dance, the company Fagan formed 23 years ago in a poor section of Rochester, N.Y. But he and his dancers have overcome many of their nightmares.
Wherever the 16-member troupe performs, from Albany, N.Y. to Zimbabwe, its uncommon blend of Afro-Caribbean, modern, and classical dance draws cheers from critics and audiences alike.
In 1991 Fagan's visionary choreography helped earn the company an invitation to the Next Wave Festival, a showcase for avant-garde performing artists held each year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
``I don't believe in trashing what went before me,'' says Fagan. ``But one of my responsibilities as a contemporary choreographer is to push the art form forward so it resonates to the times we live in.''
Fagan's trademark movement is an explosive release of energy that starts without warning and ends just as abruptly. For these leaps, jumps, and spins he permits his dancers no visible preparations and no subsequent fanfare. Instead, he juxtaposes movement with intervals of stillness.
``I give audiences jagged and raw,'' he says, ``but I also give them sleek and traditional.''
Fagan's appearance is as distinctive as his choreography. He favors contrast in his attire and hairstyle, sporting a Groucho Marx mustache and a graying ponytail.
Now 53 and a grandfather of two, Fagan was born and raised in Jamaica. He began dancing there as a teenager, but at his father's urging he moved to Detroit to study psychology. He took workshops with Martha Graham, Jose Limon, and Alvin Ailey during vacations, but a back injury forced him to stop performing. He turned to teaching, and is now a professor at the State University of New York at Brockport.
Initially his duties included teaching a course in downtown Rochester, and it was from this class of beginners that Fagan founded his company in 1970. He says it was easier to start ``from scratch'' than to work with conventionally trained dancers.
The chief purpose of Fagan technique is to invent new movements. Typically Fagan will begin by combining the polyrhythms and flexibility of Afro-Caribbean dance with the floor work and balance of modern dance and the speed and agility of ballet. As his company grew more proficient, Fagan presented it with increasingly difficult compositions.
``I cannot abide dancers who play it safe,'' he says. ``I tell my company to go ahead, put the extension a little bit higher. It's OK to tip it. It's OK to fall. You're a live breathing human being carving through space. Let the audience know that.''
In the 1991 piece ``Griot New York,'' a collaboration with jazz composer Wynton Marsalis and sculptor Martin Puryear, he rummages through the urban macrocosm in search of universal motifs. Last year's ``Moth Dreams,'' by contrast, works at a personal level.
In ``Draft of Shadows,'' his new dance inspired by Angelou's poem ``On the Pulse of Morning,'' Fagan weaves together the sociological concerns of ``Griot New York'' with the intimate anguish and joy of ``Moth Dreams.'' ``Draft of Shadows'' features a mismatched couple banded together at the knee. Twisting awkwardly at first, they learn through hard work, repetition, and invention to move with a collective grace far more sublime than independence.
Through the years Fagan has set his dances to musical scores by composers as varied as Antonin Dvorak, Philip Glass, and Thelonious Monk, but it is jazz that resonates most clearly in his work.
``With Garth, the dance becomes a breathing organism inside of the music,'' Wynton Marsalis says. ``It has its own counterpoint and its own logic. What Garth offers is a response to the internal meaning of the music, not just a choreographed translation of the notes.''
Fagan may be accustomed to such favorable evaluations, but what matters more, he says, is striving. The conclusion to ``Draft of Shadows'' underscores that sentiment. As the lights fade, dancer Sharon Skepple extends her leg ever upward, reaching for the sky, maybe higher.
* The company's 1994 itinerary includes: the Reg Lenna Center in Jamestown, N.Y. (Jan. 22); Bushnell Auditorium in Hartford, Conn. (Feb. 25-27); and Chicago's Schubert Theater (May 11, 13, and 14).