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Poor Man's Ballet

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GRIOT NEW YORK

Garth Fagan Dance

at the Shubert Theatre, May 11-14

After you scrape away a thick layer of pretension, Garth Fagan's evening-length Griot New York is about music and dance--that is, about bone and rippling muscle; about people holding onto untenable positions with fierce strength, locking their bodies into sculptural shapes; about peasantry and poverty. The dance is about a lot of things, but it's not really about New York or the African storytellers called griots.

A telling moment comes in a duet called "Spring Yaounde." Yaounde is the capital of Cameroon, which has nothing to do with this seduction dance for a man and woman dressed only in bikini trunks; the woman's soft breasts dominate the dance's image. When it begins, the woman (Valentina Alexander) is in something like a classical ballet position--an attitude derriere en pointe, balanced on one fully extended foot while the other leg is lifted behind and bent at the knee, a position that demands both strength and the willful disregard of pain. Though the shape Alexander assumes looks great, it is subtly different from the ballet position in which the torso is directly over the leg, which should be directly over the middle of the ball of the foot so that the weight of the torso falls directly into the floor. Alexander's foot is not fully extended and her legs are neither fully turned in nor out. It's not that Alexander's position is bad classical form, but it's a position that's next to impossible to hold because it demands immense strength in the foot, hips, and back to fight off gravity. But Alexander maintains the position for minutes as she's slowly turned in a circle by her partner, who holds her in an unorthodox way, literally supporting her. When Alexander relaxes from her torturous position into her partner's arms, the emotional relief is also palpable--a strong, enduring woman surrenders to the embrace of her man.

Griot New York is filled with movements that have been subtly changed from ballet movements in ways that make them harder, but which often have their own emotional payoffs. Men spin like tops on the heel of their foot, where control is harder to achieve. All the dancers spin like tops in a series of chaine turns, sometimes turning on the ball and sometimes on a flat foot. The dancers seem to have no center to which they return but move from one off-centered position to another; they seem boneless, not the structural steel of classical ballet dancers.

Such spectacular movements are mixed with ones that are merely showy. A leap in which the dancer touches the toes on both feet is spectacular, but in other leaps dancers pull their legs up into a crouch so that they only appear to be jumping high. Legs are often lifted higher by hiking the hip around so that the dancer is off balance. Because the dancers are never centered, they don't move well across the floor; in fact, they hardly move across the floor at all. Slow, sculptural movements are Fagan's favorites, because adagio movement shows off the dancers' strength. Fagan keeps showing us almost nude bodies with rippling muscles; in one section a stageful of dancers strip off brightly colored unitards to reveal the skimpy black leotards underneath.

Because the dancers' movements defy physical sense, they must require countless hours of practice--evident also in the limited number of movements choreographed. Fagan's dance sequences seem to be composed only of chaine turns, heel spins, toe-touching leaps, attitudes, and shapes made with arms and hands. For floor patterns he favors simple lines and circles, never turning these into the shifting, more complex patterns of choreographers like George Balanchine and even Lar Lubovitch. He never molds space with scenery the way Chicagoans Jan Bartoszek and Shirley Mordine do. His dances seem spliced together, not shaped. They don't have any hidden meanings, thoughtful commentaries, or shadows. They don't have a penetrating heart or a soul. They live in an everyday world. Martin Puryear's gigantic soft sculptures of such common objects as a hoe, a chain, and a water jug are a lovely ironic comment on just how everyday Fagan's vision is.

Even Fagan's grand scheme for Griot New York doesn't hold together. Jamaican-born Fagan wanted to tell the story of New York as an African storyteller might. But Griot New York is as much about New York or Africa as your typical evening of television. Its many tiny stories don't add up to a big story. The narrative is about daily living, the sort that happens everywhere: a seduction, a hoedown, meeting people of the opposite sex. Its one section about public life--"The Disenfranchised" is about the homeless--offers a trite vision of people in rags stumbling around a sculpture of stairs (the "stairway of possibilities," get it?) leading into thin air.

If we strip away the things that don't work, what's left is Wynton Marsalis's music and Fagan's movement. Marsalis's music is always fresh and often more; his music for "The Disenfranchised" has some of Charles Mingus's moaning choruses and trapped desperation.

The mystery is Fagan's movement. He does not seem to understand the body mechanics that allow ballet dancers to move so freely or the tools used to create captivating choreography. His is the poor man's version of ballet: nylon, not silk.

And that is precisely why I respond so strongly to Fagan's movement. His dancers, with their fantastic dedication and astonishing strength, literally embody a poor man's pride and struggle. It's as if his dances repeatedly say one thing: that being poor feels like being placed in an impossible position, then having to hold that position for a long, long time. The poverty of Fagan's native Jamaica seems to have shaped him. His dancers represent an idealized image of peasants: strong men and women who don't get much chance to move around but who long for the better things in life. His dances show that what a poor man needs is a reason for holding still, and a bucketful of pride.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steve Labuzetta.

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