Garth Fagan Dance delivers new spirit-lifting work

An evening spent with Garth Fagan Dance is a humanity-affirming event, even though his works — mirroring life’s tough blows — rattle the performers’ bodies and test their spirit.

That’s because Fagan, the master of his own modern dance brew (and the Tony Award-winning choreographer for Disney’s “The Lion King”) returns repeatedly to the sunny side. This clear-eyed realism mixed with buoyancy came out in a movement language of contrasts and dualities at the company’s weekend performances, presented by Ebony Repertory Theatre at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center in L.A.

Appreciating them for their surface values alone, the dances present a stream of visual surprises; a deeper dive into the gestures inspires the audience to share in Fagan’s ecstasy.

Now leading his Rochester, N.Y.-based group into its 47th season, Fagan is ever prolific. He presented two West Coast premieres Friday night: “A Moderate Cease” by principal dancer Norwood Pennewell, and Fagan’s “In Conflict.”

Pennewell has been one of Fagan’s primary muses for almost 40 years, and the dancer’s affinity for Fagan’s unique expressiveness shows up in Pennewell’s own choreographic choices, such as striking balances with one leg extended. “A Moderate Cease” was a reserved piece that holds its meanings close in, but it suggested an internal journey for three women and three men. Beginning and ending in a circle of light, the six dancers struck poses suggesting classical heroism, with one arm curved upward like a crescent. Pennewell’s staccato dance phrasing worked in counterpoint to the melodic, slow cello pieces by 20th century British composers William Walton and Imogen Holst.

Leaving the home circle, the performers splintered into a duo and threesome, after which Adriene Barber began a long solo that was the work’s beating heart. Barber had the physical and emotional intensity for this movement monologue. Her arms murmured with soft flutters in time to the cello notes. With an iron strength and will, she flowed from one long-held pose to the next. Pennewell’s intentions, though, were shrouded. Barber and her comrades — Vitolio Jeune, Guy Thorne, Rishell Maxwell, Le’Tiger Walker and Nina Price, all excellent — wore blank expressions, giving away little.

Fagan, on the other hand, is more direct with “In Conflict.” While this piece suggests the destructive elements of strife, it served also as an unconventional kinetic examination of the music of Arvo Pärt and a terrific vehicle for principal dancer Natalie Rogers, another longtime leading performer.

Fagan tapped into the emotional intensity of four of Pärt’s well-known pieces, including “Cantus in Memoriam for Benjamin Britten” and “Spiegel im Spiegel.” (The night’s music was recorded.) Beginning with alternating solos for Rogers and Jeune, this first section depicted people gripped by an internal battle. Rogers, her body clenched and eyes bulging, shook with such violence that it seemed she might split apart. Jeune leaped skyward, feet pulled up in a jumping style that is a Fagan signature.

The choreographer devoted the second half to three couples (costumed in brilliantly colored tights and tops by Jean Beck and Cynthia Andreson) before Jeune and Rogers joined them. The piece had playful, shifting dynamics with contrasts between big and small movements, and the audience’s preconceptions of musical cues and dance expectations were challenged. The piece ended with the dancers standing on half point, arms down, looking expectantly to us for reaction.

The program opened with Fagan’s “Prelude,” a 1983 work made from classroom exercises that build in complexity to a jubilant finale. Here he showed us the key elements of his pieces, and his dances’ inherent rhythms. The evening included two other joyous pieces from 2015, previously seen here: excerpts from the jazz-inspired “Life: Dark/Light” and “Geoffrey Holder Life Fete … Bacchanal.” The latter piece is a Caribbean-inflected tribute to the , a true Renaissance man, and a rousing party to which we’re awfully glad to have been invited.

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