Garth Fagan founded Bottom of the Bucket, But … Dance Theater in 1970, working with untrained dancers in a gymnasium on Andrews Street. In the 45 years that followed, he built a dance company using his own technique—one that has kept some of them dancing into their fifties and sixties.
Through the dancers he has nurtured for nearly a half-century, Fagan has created a language of movement uniquely his own. And the world has been listening.
Widely considered one of the top choreographers in modern history, Fagan has created more than 70 works. He is a storyteller. The Fagan Technique, honed and refined, serves as the foundation upon which to tell stories, and his dancers’ movements are his voice. Strong at its core, the style blends Afro-Caribbean energy, the speed and precision of ballet and the edge of postmodern dance.
Fagan has won every prestigious award, notably for choreographing “The Lion King”: a Tony Award for best choreography, Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, Astaire Award and Laurence Olivier Award.
He recently sat down in the company’s studios at 50 Chestnut St. with Rochester Business Journal to reflect on a career that has taken him and his dancers around the world. A full transcript of the interview follows.
ROCHESTER BUSINESS JOURNAL: I’m going to start out by rewinding to your 20s, to the point at which you came from Jamaica and went to Detroit. What took you to Wayne State?
GARTH FAGAN: Oh, my mother and my aunt and uncle were living there. My dad, being an Oxford man, had wanted me to go to an Ivy League school, and I went to an Ivy League school for a semester and hated it. I went back there for a summer training and I still hated it because it was too hoity toity. I’m from upperclass Jamaica, so we had a maidservant and all that good stuff, so to be pretentious is really middle class.
RBJ: That’s interesting.
GF: Yeah, so then when I went to Wayne State, this wonderful teacher, Pat Welling, she fell madly in love with me and pushed me and pushed me but in a beautiful way, never bitchy or negative. Just “You can do better, you can jump, you can turn faster,” you know, just do it. And she choreographed my first solo that I did. It was done to no music, which in the early ’60s was a scandal, you know, but “Contemplation” was the name of the piece and the audiences just loved it. And I was so vulgar; I did jumps and all the things I could do … and she pulled me back and said, “You know, no. You did four fabulous jumps. Why do you have to do seven?”
RBJ: Less is more.
GF: But I did not understand that. I was just showing off. I was 23, so why not? Dr. Ruth Murray, she was the head of the dance department there. She was wonderful too. There was a controversy, I had a dance, it was 11 minutes long. They said I couldn’t do both sections; I could only do one section. I said, “No, it’s not splittable,” and I said, “OK, I won’t do it.” And I went across the street to the Detroit Institute of Arts, which is a bigger institution, and got them to give me a whole concert. (Laughs.) But Dr. M came and she said, “Garth, I am so furious at you for not doing that dance in the student program, but I applaud you for sticking to your ground because now that I have seen the second section, the movement development you did, the thematic material, you’re right. One side of my brain is very upset with you and the other side of my brain is saying hosannas.” She was just amazing. That kind of mentorship you don’t find. So anyway, that’s why I went to Wayne State.
RBJ: And you were studying psychology?
GF: Yeah. I thought I was going to go into that because it interested me and it was a profession my daddy could enjoy and applaud more, being an Oxford man. (By) 1973 (when he was working at SUNY College at Brockport), the company was three years old and we had no money, and I took 16 dancers and technicians down to Jamaica because I wanted them to see how we lived in Jamaica. I also took them to the ghetto so they could see that. … So I made sure they saw that and I told them, “Well, Dad might not come because he doesn’t believe in this dancing.” So I called him and I said, “Dad I’m here. I won’t be staying at home; I’m staying at the Sheraton. I reserved a box for you and that’s eight seats. I hope you can make it.” Click. I was 33. I was a grown man, gracious me, you know. (Laughs.)
He came to the show. He came backstage, sweetness and light. If I had told him it was going to have intellectual substance and cultural elegance he never would have (come). The dancers said, “You said your father was so mean. What a lovely man.” I said, “Hmm.” My brothers and everybody were howling. I told them about the real him and here he came. But the good news is and I said, “Dad, I owe you thus and so and I’ll give it to you in three installments,” because I’d charged all of this on his American Express card. I had one but I had a maximum (on it). And he said, “You don’t owe me a dime. I’m so proud of you.” And the next year he died from a heart attack. Sometimes you never know why you’re possessed to do something. And see, he was such an influence on me that I would be worrying to this day—“What would Dad say? Is this good enough?”—because he really —everything I touch has standards and criteria and whatever, and he put that in me and it has helped me immensely in my career.
RBJ: And having that so early on—
RBJ: It’s like what you said, what if you hadn’t gone there, those “What if?” questions.
GF: And I was possessed and I didn’t know why, but the gods were telling me get your ass down here for your daddy, what you doing. My mother was sweetness and light and she loved the arts more than him so she was happy from day one. She didn’t see a problem with it. And then now I say, “Well, Daddy, I didn’t get my doctorate but I have what, 12, 13 honorary doctorates. I’m Dr., Dr., Dr. Dr. Dr. Fagan, are you happy?” It’s the conversations I have with him.
RBJ: When you moved from Detroit to Rochester/Brockport, were you referred here? How did that work?
GF: I came to do a summer program. It was called “Teaching Dance to the Disadvantaged.” And Brockport was expanding with people of color in their recruitment. It was a two-section course. I had undergrads that I was teaching and then I had graduate students that I was discussing and showing them how to teach.
GF: And it was a big tremendous success, and we toured the malls here with a little performance. And Carvin Eison, who is head of Rochester (Community) Television, was one of my students.
RBJ: He was? I didn’t know that.
GF: And Carvin was going to turn my class out and I busted him.
RBJ: What do you mean by “turn my class out?”
GF: Oh he was real smart and he was insecure and smart or whatever—“What’s the purpose of this?” all that kind of stuff. … He was disruptive but he wanted to bring attention to himself, which told me that he’s got much more in there than he’s giving right now. And this is not the student you discard; this is the student you nourish and you discipline them. I call him my baby brother now. His son calls me Uncle Garth, his daughter, you know, because we’ve been friends all this time and I bitched at him to get his master’s. He never had that in his life. So anyway, so many of them who took that course told me, by the way, “Your call on Carvin Eison was right.” (Laughs)
But that’s your responsibility as a teacher, to feed and nourish the student. Now if it had come to brass tacks I would have won because I would have put him severely in his place, but it was nothing like that; he just wanted me to see him and know that he was here. That’s a bright, bright student.
So anyway, the summer course was so successful that they called and said would I be interested in a job, and I was on my way to (Alvin) Ailey then.
RBJ: Oh, OK.
GF: And I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it for a year or two.”
RBJ: Here you are.
GF: And here I am 45 years after that. Rochester was a good place for me because you could catch a plane to any of the major cities and get there within two hours, except for L.A.
RBJ: Do you remember the first performance that Bottom of the Bucket, But… gave? Do you remember where it was?
GF: Yeah, it was in Buffalo.
RBJ: In Buffalo?
GF: It was in Buffalo on November 15 of 1970. There’s a review that Herb Simpson did. He was at the Democrat and Chronicle/Times Union at the time.
RBJ: Where was it? Where in Buffalo?
GF: I don’t remember. Might have been at one of the universities. But I knew I shared the program with Dick Bull. I did my solo and my dancers did “Roots” and maybe “Liberation Suite.” But anyway, that was the first performance. And then I went to Brockport and taught for beaucoup years. I’ve forgotten how many, 30-something.
RBJ: Tell me about the early days of the company. What was it like? What was your life like?
GF: I didn’t have a life because I was teaching at Brockport in the days and in the evenings I was teaching at the Educational Opportunities Center next to that St. Joseph’s Church that burned down, on a gymnasium floor. But Steve Humphrey, the one who is going to be 73 next week.
RBJ: You mean 63?
GF: 63, sorry. They were students of that caliber. I said these people have beaucoup talent; they just need some nourishment and some discipline. … I had to go over to his house one Saturday morning. There was a rehearsal and he wasn’t there; he was at home. I drove over there, and I said hi to his mother and said, “Where is he?” She said, “Upstairs, sleeping.” I said, “Excuse me” and I went right up the stairs and said, “Get the fuck out of here; you got a rehearsal.” He needed discipline. He was a handsome young man and he was cherished and adored by his peers and his sister; he was the star of the family until I came along and he’s still with me.
RBJ: Do you remember how old you were?
GF: When started here in 1970, I was 30 when I founded the company.
RBJ: So you were teaching full time and then you started this company.
GF: That was my evening activity.
RBJ: Thinking about young professionals now. Some of the folks we talk to at the Business Journal for a section we have called Fast Start, they have all kinds of jobs, creative as well as everything else, and they’re all kind of experimenting, “What’s my life going to look like?” And I think it would be interesting for them to know what your life looked like at the time. What did you have to do?
GF: I just was intent on building this company. Alvin Ailey was performing at ArtPark and I went to see him. I remember we walked in front of the stage and the audience was wild. We were good friends. … But Alvin said Garth what you’re saying is a viable wonderful thing because I told him I didn’t want it based it on ballet, I wanted the speed and precision of ballet but I wanted it to be modern dance. And I wanted the polyrhythms of African, Caribbean dance, which I knew about. And Alvin gave us money too to help me in the beginning days. Alvin said, “No, this is a wonderful vision you have; you go ahead and do it.” Then he came to shows, he came down to the dressing room, real supportive, as was Mary Hinkson, who was one of Martha Graham’s stars and one of my teachers. Jose Limon, he’s gone now. I had some of the best mentors you could imagine.
RBJ: I think that’s a pretty good track record for the world of dance, any kind of creative art.
GF: Yeah. I just went to get an award from my university and it was wonderful and they gave me some photographs of me as youngster. I showed the dancers last night. I said, “See? None of you can jump as high as me, so get yourself together,” and they said, “You’re damn right.” (Laughs.)
RBJ: Did you have a back injury? Is that what stopped the dancing or slowed it down?
GF: I have chronic back pain and I had a back injury and that’s one of the reasons why I don’t allow my women to get fat. I don’t allow anybody to get fat because the dancer’s body is their instrument. That’s what they play. With all the side lights you gain 10, 15 pounds immediately from just the side lights. Those monsters that make everything look so beautiful … I had to lift in college and dance theater. In Detroit Contemporary Dance Company I had to lift some fat girls and I would say, “I’m never going to do that to my men.”
RBJ: Because you have a lot of lifts.
GF: Oh Lord, yes, they’re wonderful, they’re exciting, they’re lovely and by the same token my women jump with the best of the men. I don’t have pretty little maids waiting on princes to come.
RBJ: Your dancers all look strong.
GF: Yes, very strong. I can’t stand this old-fashioned thing of swans and princes. It was nice, I loved Swan Lake to look at it, but that was two centuries ago. So why are we still doing that? Where women like you, professional women and executives, and doctors and lawyers and other things that women “couldn’t do.” So, hello? Ursula Burns, my dear friend. So I don’t live in that world. And same thing with my men; I like them to vulnerable and sensitive, not just macho, “me strong man.” … But that’s youth.
RBJ: Yeah, it is.
GF: I have to nourish them and let them know your life is OK; it’s your life. But I don’t want to see you competing with the girls on the stage. Same way: My women are strong but they’re beautiful and sensual and they’re mothers and doctors and cum laude graduates. The brain is one of my favorite things about a dancer. If they are bright they can work with me. If they’re stupid and shallow it’s not going to work. I can give them metaphors and mention countries and whatever. Happily we have toured all over the world, all over Europe, Australia and New Zealand. All over Africa. … Nine countries in nine weeks in Africa, where we had to perform on our day off in Africa because everything was sold out and the people were so happy. This is bringing home something that they know and something that they didn’t know.
RBJ: What an experience for anyone, but as a young person too, to be able to do that.
GF: It was ’85 when we went to Africa, so I was 45. So I was still young (laughs), and I toured Africa before choosing the places. I wouldn’t go to South Africa because of what they were doing to Nelson Mandela at the time. Lord have mercy, I met him in Jamaica.
RBJ: You did? Tell me about that.
GF: My cousin was general manager of the hotel, the Sheraton in Kingston, and when there was a big reception at P.J. Patterson’s King’s House, which is like the White House in Jamaica, I came down to go to that. When I came to the hotel my cousin said to me you, “Oh just missed Nelson Mandela. He just left because he had to go out to lunch” and whatever. I said, “Yes, but I’ll see him at the party.” So then he said, “I am going to put you in the room he was in, but it’s not ready.” I said, “Don’t change a thing. Just take me up there.” He took me up there and I stripped down to my drawers and got into bed and said, “Give it to me, Jesus, just a little something of this man.” I was madly in love with the man, just the strong, beautiful person he was (to) not destroy everything afterwards but heal everything, you know.
So by the time I went to the party and met Nelson Mandela, I said, “Oh, Mr. Mandela, can I please get a hug from you.” We shook hands and all of that. He said, “Oh yeah, you can get a hug from me, and by the way I heard that you went into my hotel room.” (Laughs.) I said, “I just wanted half of your strength, just a little something of your strength and blessings to rub off on me.” Then he hugged me again. The electricity that went through me when that man hugged me was like no other electricity I felt from hugging anybody. But that’s how much respect I had for him. Then when I went to Africa, to Jo’burg, the story had gotten down there. (Laughs.) That picture that they had of him in the front page of the New York Times when he died, I have a copy of that photograph. It’s so beautiful.
RBJ: The people you meet in the work you’re doing…
GF: Amazing. Everybody, every notable. When we opened “Lion King” in London, I sat right next to Prince Charles (because we had met in Jamaica). Julie Taymor, who is the director of “Lion King”— brilliant, tough ass. She’s a dragon in Chinese astrology and I’m a dragon. I am just 12 years older than her. We work hard, we’re very demanding, starting with ourselves and anybody we work with. We don’t suffer fools. So she said, “Why did the prince want to sit next to you?” I said, “Because we met in Jamaica,” and we just chatted the whole night through. It was me, him, Julie. At a point in his life when he was younger, I showed him around. (Laughs.)
RBJ: What was he doing in Jamaica?
GF: Just visiting. Jamaica was a British commonwealth; now it’s independent. But at the time it was a British commonwealth.
RBJ: Oh, OK. So he was a much younger man.
GF: Oh yeah, much younger but he remembered.
RBJ: Tell me about the “Lion King.” It must have been a completely different experience from the work you do at the company. What was it like?
GF: Well it was hard as hell, I’ll tell you that. … (Disney was interested in my doing the show) and the last show I’d done was with Wynton Marsalis, “Griot New York,” and it was a big successful scandal at the time. (It included) a duet where men and women are topless, and it’s really a beautiful, erotic thing. So I said, “Disney?” Because the Disney that I knew was Snow White and Sleeping Beauty—you know, the nice, pretty Disney. I said, “Huh? Me?” I called up Janet Lomax and said, “Janet, loan me your ‘Lion King’ DVD” because she had kids, you know, young. My kids were grown. So I didn’t know nothing about “Lion King” and I saw it and fell madly in love with it, and then once I saw it and saw the possibilities, then Julie invited me to her house to show me some sketches and costumes and the puppets, and I fell more in love.
RBJ: It was starting to look like something in your head. You were starting to create a vision.
GF: Yeah and it wasn’t sweetness and light like the Disney that I had grown up with.
RBJ: What were some of the challenges for that project that you don’t typically have?
GF: The challenges are the puppets, the damn puppets, because I’d worked with dancers and their bodies. And now you have dancers who have a gazelle on their arm or a gazelle on the headpiece so that throws off your center when you go into a spin, throws your weight either way. P.J. (Norwood Pennewell) and Natalie (Rogers-Cropper) assisted me; they had worked for me so they were fearless. If I said it could be done, it could be done. I could show them once or twice but then I was exhausted because I wasn’t in shape. That was one of the main things. And then the duality in that the lionesses, they had lion heads on top of their heads, but you could see their human faces, and Julie being Julie had costumed them in silk.
GF: That don’t go together. But it was light and so beautiful. So it was my job to bring out their femininity but still feel that they’ll kill you in a moment.
My daughter who died when she was two years and 10 months old, she helped me through that. I did the lionesses with her in mind because she loved anything cats, lions; she just loved them and I don’t. I’m a dog person, you know. So that helped me a lot in doing that piece and it’s one of my favorite pieces in the whole show.
RBJ: It reminds you of your daughter.
GF: Yeah, because I said, “OK, Shereen, this is for you,” because she just loved anything to do with cats or lions or tigers. You use what you got in life. Then the hyenas are the terrible beasts, you’ve seen it, “Lion King.”
GF: They’re not good guys; they’re just bums. But I still wanted them to have some humanity because you could see their faces. I didn’t want them to be ghettoized. So that was another challenge. And then you’ve got all these animals. That first number when we premiered the show in Minneapolis, all of my colleagues, every single member who worked on that—lighting, costumes—were brilliant people—set design—and we all worked hard. Everybody worked hard. Tom Schumacher who was the Disney producer, he had come out of theater, so he knew what we were reaching for. We were reaching for something special and unusual. When we got a blind spot he knew that this too would pass. It was wonderful having that kind of support. And Michael Eisner loved it when we showed him the first preview with just cardboard cutouts and stuff.
Natalie was my cheetah lady. You remember in the beginning the cheetah comes out. I said I want you to be the sexiest cheetah in the savanna. I want all the male cheetahs coming from all over Africa to see you, to get a taste of you. And that’s one of the favorite moments. Now we’ve done it in Japan, we’ve done it in Germany, we’ve done it in Australia, all over the world, Spain. I’m always particular to who plays the cheetah because it’s a whole attitudinal thing: “I’m still an animal but umm,” femme fatale. (Laughs). But Natalie who I designed that on, when Michael Eisner saw that he was madly in love. Michael Ovitz was working with them at the time and he didn’t get it. He don’t like it and I had to cuss him out and I said you want to show a European fairytale but this is not it. This is set in Africa, and I’d been to Africa seven times before when I did it. I know the savanna, I’ve seen these animals.
When we opened in Jo’burg I took Natalie and her husband and her daughter down there and her daughter was 3 years old. I took her on a safari and she petted the animals and she’s still talking about it. She’s now 10 and it’s still the highlight of her life. Because you can’t understand; (when you) see elephants in the circus it’s not the same how you see elephants out there. So anyway that was some of the problems. Luckily for me I could do the dances and then they set the music to the dances. Lebo M, who is South African, added the chants to everything and gave it a pulse and a rhythm. Him and I would sit at the piano and they danced, P.J. and Natalie and everyone, and we’d get it. So that helped me a lot. It was just that everybody, everybody—Don Holder on lights, oh God—just busted our ass. After the previews, (we would look at) what we wanted to change, what we wanted to enhance, what we wanted to minimize.
The point I want to stress is Ms. Julie, if there was a problem she had 10 solutions, immediately. Totally in charge and just wonderful. She’s got a bad rep out there but it’s because she’s a woman. If she was a man doing the same thing it wouldn’t be a problem. So we had a good time together and I love and respect her and thank her for the opportunity choosing me to do this.
RBJ: You stay in touch now?
GF: Oh yeah, oh yeah. As a matter of fact, she cannot come to the big birthday party we’re having on the 25th but she’s sending a video.
Once we opened in Minneapolis—it’s where we did the previews and built the show—man, after that first number, woo! They went bananas! (Laughs.) They stomped and they cheered and I said, “Yeah, we got ’em.”
RBJ: How many months in development was it before that night?
GF: We did eight weeks in New York, then we went to Minneapolis. We did about three months of previews. But Disney was a hundred percent behind it. I knew that they had a monster hit and I have all the awards around the world for it. I remember when we were in London (for the Olivier Awards presentation). Judy Dench was there, and Judy was up for an award too. She said, “Oh God if you don’t get this award, I’m going to turn this place out.” She said, “This is the most amazing show I’ve ever seen.” Once they announced me, the place went wild. And the Olivier doesn’t go to Americans too often, and definitely not black Americans.
RBJ: Is that something that you went to the ceremony not knowing if you had won something?
GF: Yeah, I was nominated. But you know, lots of people are nominated too. When I went to the Tonys I had a good feeling about it because everybody was buzzing about the show. But one of the ladies that I was up against, she had been nominated seven times and never won once. So there was a rumor that I was going to be a sacrificial lamb. My wife, who was alive then, said, “If they’re going to do that then I’m going to embarrass you. Let me tell you right now I’m going to embarrass you. Once they listed the nominations we got the strongest, loudest applause, but that don’t mean that’s who it’s going to. Once I won, the place went wild. After we kissed, they had a frame, they kept her on screen by herself for around four or five seconds. But she was a model, so she was glamorous, always wearing clothes and all of that. That’s one thing I missed. She couldn’t come to the Olivier ’cause before we left, we had tickets and everything, the doctors said no. She had pancreatic cancer.
You know that moves real fast. And then when I won and I called her, I said, “Baby, I won.” She said, “Good, I knew you would.” And then the doctor said, “Let me congratulate Garth, give me the phone,” and then he walked out of the room and he said, “I know you plan to come back in three days. I’d come back tomorrow.” But he didn’t want her to hear that, of course.
RBJ: That sounds like one of those memories that’s bittersweet.
GF: Oh terribly so. And I came back the next day, immediately canceled interviews and stuff. And then six days after, she was gone. And this was a woman who was in perfect condition, drank a little wine, no booze, smoked a joint, never got fucked up. Just, I mean, compared to all of us—out of all of us she was the most pristine and she watched what she ate.
RBJ: What year was that?
GF: It opened in November ’97 and I got the Tony in 1998. We partied for opening night and Disney was throwing some fabulous parties, good seafood and everything, and good wine. The Tony night too. She enjoyed that, and she loved the ceremony more than I did.
RBJ: Let’s talk a little bit about the gala and what that means. You’ve won so many awards, you’ve created this technique, you’ve developed young dancers who are still dancing. There’s so much that you can look back on and feel really good about. What’s next?
GF: The next is preparing for this gala as far as what we’re going to do. One of the bad things about the (timing of the) gala is that Shannon Castle, who used to dance with us, strawberry blonde, she fell in love and moved to Virginia with her new man and we miss her to pieces, and I got another strawberry blonde but she won’t be coming till after school is out. I got another guy 6’5” from Florida and he won’t be coming till school is out. So I’m so sad that they won’t even be at the gala but maybe we’ll get photographs or something. I haven’t dealt with that yet.
August 1 we have a performance at Lincoln Center out of doors to celebrate Geoffrey Holder. Geoffrey was a choreographer, costume designer. His wife is Carmen de Lavallade, just beautiful, stunning and still dancing, and Carmen is my age, around there. But his birthday is August 1 and we had this show and I said, “That’s Geoffrey’s birthday, and I’m doing a dance to commemorate him.” His son wrote the most beautiful, poetic thing once he passed about him, because Geoffrey was a big man—about 6’4” and long arms—and once he walked into a room he took over, just by stature, without even trying. His son spoke about that but also some beautiful loving things that people knew Geoffrey. It was just what you’d love to hear your son say about you, still pointing out your problems. It was not all sweetness and light. So I’m going to do a dance to that and then I have another premiere at the Joyce in the fall. So we have to do that. And then another week in California.
RBJ: Where in California?
GF: L.A., L.A., my least favorite part of California, but they love us out there. We got rave reviews and broke box office records and everything. And when we were performing in California, a Sunday at a matinee, is when Geoffrey passed and Carmen called us. I announced it to the audience because he was from California—originally from Trinidad but in California with Alvin and a whole bunch of them.
So that’s what I’ve got immediately. We had a European tour; it’s still not canceled but they’re having real money problems. They’re having bigger problems in Europe than we are.
RBJ: As far as the organization itself, Garth Fagan Dance, in terms of looking forward and figuring out different things the organization wants to do, to continue to be strong, education in the community and things like that. I’m wondering if your succession plan is in place.
GF: My succession plan is in place: P.J., he is the choreographer now, and Bill Ferguson, he does an amazing job with the kids. He choreographs the kids. He has lots of boys dancing, which is good. He knows boys; he lets them run around the room and do all those terrible boy things and then he says, “Now settle down,” and they do, immediately. And he knows when they get (waves hands) and he lets them go again. It’s wonderful because too many people try to turn boys into girls when they’re teaching them dance. No, boys will be boys and girls will be girls, and girls will always be more disciplined than boys. Every now and then you find a mad girl that you know who’s going to need some of that boy treatment. It’s all different. So, Bill and Natalie. It’s going to take a triumvirate to keep it going.
RBJ: It makes sense in a way, like you say, a triumvirate, three people, there’s balance that way. Checkpoints and that sort of thing.
GF: But I don’t want it to become an executive company because that’s when art dies.
RBJ: How do you guard against that happening?
GF: Well, I’m president and CEO and I have my lawyers working on what to dictate for the use of my work.
RBJ: In the future, someday when you’re not here anymore, how does an organization carry that legacy forward and yet create new things?
GF: New things for a new time. My dictates are that my dancers will be paid professional, on a year salary with two weeks summer and two weeks Christmas. That’s important because too many dance companies will pick up dancers as they need them, and pick-up dancers can do some good stuff, but they don’t have the heart or the command of the movement of dancers who train in it all year. That’s why the Ailey dancers are so good. (The company is) bigger than them and you just do this and you don’t do this. That I got to make sure that I can keep alive. As far as new things, you know, 20, 30 years ago we didn’t have cell phones.
RBJ: Yeah, we can’t envision it, can we?
GF: Right. So things are going to change and it has to change with that, but the big problem I see now with our youth is that they’re so addicted to their electronic stuff. They don’t play ball in the alley anymore. The girls don’t jump rope anymore. Everybody is doing this (texting motion). When I have a Thanksgiving dinner and they all come and sit on the stairs doing this (texting). I say, “No, you’ve got to come and sit at the table and you’re going to tell us what you’re doing in football. Talk to your elders and tell us what the good stuff is going on and what you’re having problems with, so that we don’t lose that real communication. Because lots of kids cannot have a conversation with you but they can text you all kinds of mad languages. They hide behind texting; they can tell any lie that they want and you don’t know. If I call you up on the phone and ask you, “Girl, what you so happy about?” The minute you say hello I can tell, if I know you, is everything OK? Oh, she’s down or something, but that’s part of the conversation. Now they don’t do that. They hide. (Laughs.)
And we have to make sure we let them enjoy their electronic world because it’s their age and their time but still that they don’t lose the communicative skills and the family issues that I think are so important. I don’t do any electronic; Bill does that for me. Until they get it better I can’t use it until they go through all of those stages. When I can tell Siri to do something, that’s what I like; I can tell Siri to call, or whatever. But that’s something that we got to watch that we do not lose as a society. That’s something that’s hard to get the younger dancers to understand. Because in their world if they want another color they push a button and they get it. If they want it higher they push a button and it happens. But in dance, the human body, you got to bring your ass to class and warm up and practice those jumps and that’s something that they don’t understand.
RBJ: A lot of hard work.
GF: A lot of hard work and they’re happy with 70 percent, and 70 percent—I don’t know what is. I’m in the 90s, you know. Ninety is where I start.
RBJ: Did your teaching and guiding have to change over the years as a result of that?
GF: I’ve gotten more liberal. I don’t enjoy it as much because they bring so much less to the table and then you’ve got the ones that are technical phenoms who can do all kinds of technical stuff but no communication between the leg lift, the heart or the brain. And I love the dancer that can bring all three things together and by the same token they can’t be making too many faces on my movement. Let the movement talk; it’s a dance concert. The face can be involved but don’t be mugging me with all of that. Some people you see lots of mugging going on and not in the movement.
RBJ: What has Rochester’s impact been on you personally?
GF: I worship and adore Rochester in the spring. It’s one of the most beautiful springs that I’ve ever enjoyed. But I come from a tropical island where everything blooms all year, so when spring comes up and the daffodils come out, oh my god. I’ve got a friend, she’s got a whole driveway, a wall of daffodils. I look forward to that every spring. So I love Rochester in the spring, especially. And I love the size of the city because of the universities; it’s intelligent, all of that.
RBJ: How would you say Rochester has influenced you?
GF: It’s influenced me in good, familial, relationship ways. Like Daan Braveman at Nazareth, he and his wife, we’re good friends. Joel Seligman at U of R, those people, having those people around. James Norman at ABC, and his sister, Jessye, who is a big singer.
RBJ: Do you think Rochester has influenced the way you’ve built your company? Has it influenced how your dancers learn?
GF: It influenced it in that New York you can always find dancers on the street. In Rochester no such thing, so I have to bring them in, fly them here for auditions, pay for that, and then nourish them, health insurance, which I think all dancers should have as professionals. Their human body is their instrument.
RBJ: Other places don’t do that?
GF: Lots of people don’t do that, no. I’m really passionate about that. That’s why they stay with me for so long because I love, worship and adore them. I don’t take no foolishness. If you’re acting on some days…
RBJ: You’ve got to know everybody’s personality. It’s almost like a family out here.
GF: It’s a family. You have to know that, and just as you have your brothers and sisters that you love and some days they drive you to pieces and you wish they were in a foreign land or something and sometimes you do that to them—that’s what families do. You absorb, you nourish, you cultivate, so that’s important to me. They have to respect the dancers with the Bessie awards and the dancers who have done it longer and earned more, and compete. …
RBJ: I see.
GF: (If you don’t,) you’re never going to learn how to do it then.
RBJ: Good enough isn’t good enough.
GF: Right. Good enough is not going to get the standing ovations we get around the world.
RBJ: Who do they interact with in the community? What is their connection to the community?
GF: Well, they all have different things that they do in their own time. We have community things that we do like the Stop the Violence and stuff like that, but they do have their own things that they do because when they come in this door I beg them, I say, “We all have bad days and when Mr. and Miss Light is gone, so the world stops spinning—I don’t want to hear it.” Leave that out there in the elevator and come as if Mr. and Miss Light is still around, you know. And depending on the age, with youth that’s hard to do. By the same token they’ve found Mr. and Miss Light and (they’re doing) hosannas, yaay. You know with time what the story is and what the story isn’t. But I have to absorb it; it’s my job to absorb it as an elder and see what’s going on today and decide that I’m not going to notice that today or something about that. Or “Wait—this is this the third day this is going to happen; we’re going to stop it today.”
But my oil on my canvas is human beings with all the wonderful variables, excitement, b.s., all the stuff involved with human beings. That’s what I got to nourish and work with and that’s the hard thing. That’s the hard thing, especially when you’re pushing somebody to do something new or something that they’re not accustomed to. The better dancers, they’re vulnerable so they can’t wait to get something new to do, so they’ll go there and they’ll trust me. Newer ones—“Oh, but I never did that before. You sure I’m going to be able to do it? Am I going to look stupid?”
When I worked with New York City Ballet—my favorite ballet company in the world because of Mr. B., Balanchine—ah, and I choreographed for them and I gave them some hardass stuff to do. They said, “Garth, please don’t change a thing. Give us a day or two and we’ll have it.” And they were right. They took a little time to work on it and they did it. And it’s stuff that just regular ballet would never do.
RBJ: I would imagine too, if you’re accustomed to a certain type of dance, bringing in other techniques you would be, “Let’s try it.”
GF: It’s a challenge. I knew ballet because I took ballet. In the early days of this company I had them take ballet too. But now that I’ve developed a technique that gives me all that I need including the rigor of ballet they don’t have to do that anymore.
Some people just love change. Like, my women are very sensual, but if they ever try to be cheap or vulgar, uh-uh, not on my stage. I don’t try to play that floozy stuff. (Laughs.) I want you to be sensual and sexy but not cheap, and don’t work the audience.
RBJ: Do other places do that?
GF: Oh lord, yeah. Lots of dance companies, moisten the lips and mmm. No, go to a men’s club if that’s what you want to see. (Laughs.) But not on my stage.
RBJ: Well, you’re telling stories. Seems like that would get in the way.
GF: Yeah, and then we have more abstract pieces.
RBJ: What was it like working with Wynton Marsalis?
GF: Oh god, heaven. Absolute heaven. The first time I worked with Wynton, in ’91, he did music, Martin Puryear did the set. Those two gentlemen, it was so wonderful working with them because Wynton and I composed the music and he came to me and when he saw the love duet he tore up the score he had. He said, “Uh-uh. I’ve never seen anything as beautiful as that.” And that same day he composed the music that exists now, one hand on the keyboard and one hand on the trumpet. The walls were weeping it was so beautiful.
RBJ: Was that in here?
GF: In here, yeah. And another interesting thing that happened is that that was the day that Miles Davis died. The phone rang and they said, “Garth, emergency,” so I went in—because they also know when I’m working don’t bug me with crap—and it was Miles’ daughter saying he had passed. And I came out of the room, must have looked like death warmed over because I loved Miles. And Wynton said, “What’s up? What’s the matter?” I said, “I just got some bad news but I’ll tell you at dinner.” I didn’t want him losing what he was on to. You don’t do that and I told him. Him and Miles had a strained relationship. They had a big fight one time because Wynton being a kid at the time went up on Miles’ stage—which is something you don’t do in the jazz world—and just started to play. Miles said, “Get the fuck off my stage. Who told you you could come up here?” But Wynton didn’t know and so I spent a large part of my life healing that wound or trying to heal that wound, and I don’t know if I ever did. But then when I had dinner with him that night I said, “And now that Miles is gone, you are the trumpeter. So it’s a lot of work you got to do now. He’s passed the torch to you, brother.” It was very somber.
But it was really great and Martin gave me sketches and he had one thing in there—he had cotton, and I said, “I don’t want any cotton on my stage.” That’s the one thing: I told the two of them, I said, “Listen, I love the two of you; that’s why I chose you. But this is my concept. I know what the piece is and isn’t. So If I don’t like it I’m going to tell you, but please don’t be wounded. It just means that it’s not working. I won’t work with that.” And he canceled the cotton immediately. When he saw the dance I did he said, “Damn, Garth, in my wildest dreams.” It was just amazing.
I’ll never forget when we did it in Paris the first night—oh my god—and every other night too. They stomped and they cheered. They wouldn’t stop applauding. And even in Vienna, the critics said we got applause usually restricted to only grand opera.
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