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Longtime dancer moves to lead

Karen Brown was raised to believe she could be anything she wanted to be as long as she worked hard enough to earn it. For a black girl growing up in the South and attending a predominantly white parochial school, it could have been a difficult dream to keep alive.

As the new leader of the internationally renowned Garth Fagan Dance Inc., with a successful dance career of her own, Brown credits her early years for propelling her to the many accomplishments she has made.

“I’ve often been the only person of color. My brother Stephen and I integrated our school in Augusta (Ga.) right before three black teens were killed,” Brown says. “My mother reared us in a bubble of expectation of tolerability, not planting seeds of hate. At 92, she is now in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s but she is still a great inspiration to me.”

Brown was one of seven children. Her father, Allen Brown, was a medical practitioner, obstetrician and gynecologist, and her mother, Ann Ponder Brown, was a registered nurse.

An honor roll student at Episcopal Day School in Augusta, Brown says she was studying ballet at age 8 and later realized her skill for teaching. Through her love of ballet, she made a career of both for more than two decades, leading to her entry into the prestigious Paradigm dance ensemble and to a Bessie Award, one of the top awards in the dance performance industry.

Dance always will be her passion, and it has led her to Rochester to take the lead of the organization founded by Garth Fagan. She hopes to bring the unique Fagan dance style to wider audiences, first by systematizing it and then by making it more easily available, especially to young dancers.

“Let’s codify it so everyone is teaching the same way,” Brown says. “This is the way we’re going to teach, develop a curriculum. What I said to Garth was ‘You have a technique you created. Let’s show its importance, codify it and determine how to teach it to sustain its legacy.’”

Brown oversees a staff that includes a five-member leadership team and 15 dance company members. She manages an annual budget of $1.2 million.

Last year marked the 45th anniversary of Garth Fagan Dance. Garth Fagan is artistic director, president and chief choreographer of the company and is currently in the studio choreographing a new work for the annual Nazareth season. He hired Brown as executive director to succeed Ruby Lockhart.

The company has performed throughout the United States and in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Five dance troupe members have won the Bessie Award: Garth Fagan, Steve Humphrey, Norwood Pennewell, Natalie Rogers-Cropper and Sharon Skepple Mayfield. The school provides cultural and educational programming, including its six week Summer Movement Institute that offers an entry point into dance for children.

Forming alliances
Brown says her biggest challenge is managing the work necessary to run the company with a limited staff. The best way to solve that is to call on the community for support, and Brown already has introduced herself to several potential allies, she says, including officials in the Rochester mayor’s office and at the Rochester Area Community Foundation.

An idea she has for unused space at the Garth Fagan Dance studio at 50 Chestnut St. turned into a proposal she submitted to Mayor Lovely Warren with some unofficial guidance from the Rochester Downtown Development Corp.

It is a proposal for a 900-seat performance venue that would be the Garth Fagan International Performing Arts Center. It would be for the Fagan dancers but also open to performers from around the world who are looking for a midsize production facility downtown. Brown says the cost estimate is $3 million for the theater alone.

“There’s a theater there that can be converted into a 900-seat theater, and it’s big enough to have a scene shop, to train people to build sets and to store costumes,” Brown says. “We could invite other companies to come in. It’s hugely expensive in New York City. I see us being able to do a production at 50 Chestnut. It would be a little larger than our current home at Nazareth, but it would be downtown.”

Brown submitted her proposal May 31 and is waiting for feedback.

Heidi Zimmer-Meyer, president of RDDC, toured the Fagan studio with Brown and believes there is potential in the proposal.

“She reached out to me because they are downtown and she wanted to know what the opportunity might be. It is an interesting building with some unusual space that could lend itself well,” Zimmer-Meyer says. “It could be a draw for artists to come here from bigger markets because it is extremely expensive for them elsewhere.”

Smaller cities have done well with similar venues, such as Jacob’s Pillow, a popular dance center located in Becket, Mass., in the Berkshires. Artists from around the country flock to the site for performances and festivals.

“Garth is a gem to begin with and we are so lucky to have the company here,” Zimmer-Meyer says. “They are here in part because of the livability. It’s easy to get around. For her to be thinking about the space they are in and how to best use it is smart.”

A ballet career
Through her career in ballet, Brown has developed professional partnerships as well as lifelong friendships with dancers.

Ron Colton, the so-called Father of the Augusta Ballet, was one of her first teachers. Colton joined the New York City Ballet in 1953, toured Europe, moved to Augusta in 1964 and made his teaching career there. Brown was his student in 1972. She recalls how he tempered her mother’s “you can do anything” mantra with a somewhat sobering message.

“I told Ron after I graduate I’m going to get a contract with the Joffrey Ballet. He told me in the real world it’s not going to happen that easily. He said in modern dance you would be allowed, but it’s not that easy for black dancers in ballet,” Brown says.

While studying with Colton, Brown met Mel Tomlinson, the dancer who later made his debut in 1981 as the only African-American member of the New York City Ballet. Before he and Brown were stars, Tomlinson answered a call from Colton to go to Augusta.

“He said he needed a male to go down there and dance with a young lady, and I drove right to her,” Tomlinson recalls. “It was an estate. I had never seen such well-to-do people of color in my life. Her beginnings were much different than mine. Lots of her class rubbed off on me.”

Tomlinson and Brown became fast friends and constant dance partners and were recognized at a regional dance festival by scouts from the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Both were offered scholarships and in time moved to New York City.

Brown became a principal ballerina and danced there from 1973 to 1995. Tomlinson says his rise was faster than Brown’s because as a male he was in greater demand.

“Male dancers travel faster,” Tomlinson says, “same as in the athletic world.”

There was always support for each other and a special understanding.

“She’s so smart but so funny. We can talk without speaking,” Tomlinson says. “She has the ability to rub elbows with the right people. She’s able to socialize and make herself known. I’m glad she’s in a leadership position. That’s what she is—in charge.”

He also speaks highly of her style, not only her ability to “wear one outfit eight different ways,” but also her savvy in knowing how to sew beautiful fashions herself.

“We went to the White House together where the Reagans were honoring Margaret Thatcher,” he says. “We were to perform in the Blue Room. She had a beautiful gown with long white gloves. She was still sewing the hem by hand herself on the way to the event!”

Teaching dancing
Brown is dedicated to the perfection of the art of dancing. As an assistant professor of dance at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, she used a $12,500 research grant to test a computerized motion analysis program that studied the movements of eight dancers. Her findings led to the development of a ballet coaching program called En Pointe Plus Refining Institute that she created in 2014. She uses the program in workshops she holds around the country.

“There are 10 things we analyze to help train the dancers,” Brown says. “It is a mind-body connection.”

Brown hopes the technology will be incorporated into the program as the curriculum of the Fagan school expands.

The Garth Fagan dancers are extremely talented, she says.

“Seventy-five percent of the dancers have college degrees. That’s unheard of. It’s wonderful,” Brown says. “It’s nice to see young dancers becoming entrenched in the Fagan philosophies. It’s more than a dance company. He’s building and nurturing creative human beings who have values and are able to communicate.”

While Fagan’s style is described as modern dance, he has worked with famous forefathers in ballet, Brown says, such as Arthur Mitchell, the first black ballet dancer to become a permanent member of the New York City Ballet in 1955, and the founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969, the first African- American classical ballet company.

“Garth and Arthur Mitchell are friends” Brown says. “Garth worked with him as a choreographer in 1987 or 1988.”

Brown shares a connection between Fagan and another top ballet performer, Aubrey Lynch. Lynch was a dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City until he left to become an original cast member, moving up to associate producer, for the Broadway musical, “The Lion King.” Coincidentally, Brown’s youngest brother, Russell, is performing with the current cast of “The Lion King” on Broadway.

Lynch worked with Fagan on the choreography for the production. During that time, Lynch met Brown while she was teaching at the University of the Arts. Brown invited him to speak to her class.

“I was struck by the respect students had for her,” Lynch recalls. “She is stern and strong, yet loving and caring.”

When he had an opening on the faculty at the Harlem School of the Arts, he saw it as an opportunity to bring Brown’s talents to his team. Brown accepted and joined the school in 2013.

Lynch is happy to see Brown move into her new position at Garth Fagan Dance.

“I always thought, even though she was a wonderful teacher, she deserved a bigger audience,” Lynch says, “to benefit from the culmination of her life experience. Dancers peak so young, yet she’s still on top. She’s landed a place where she can use all her talents.”

Having role models is important, Brown believes, and that is why she would like to add more teachers to the staff at Garth Fagan Dance.

“I remember the first time I had a black ballet teacher,” Brown says. “You see all the different ways you can be. You see how they empower you. I would like to add a week to our Summer Movement Institute next year and add sixth graders. We need more teachers to provide that much more support to kids.”

Teaching has paralleled dancing as Brown built her career. She has served as the director of education at the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education, as an adjudicator and master teacher at the Dance Theater of Harlem/John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Community Outreach Residency Program and as the artistic director at the Oakland Ballet in California. She also served as an instructor at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.

Brown says she would like to find ways to bring Garth Fagan Dance into more local public schools and to partner with more local arts organizations.

“I want to get the community to have more access to Garth Fagan Dance. We have dancers who are photographers, costume designers. I see us having them at Fashion week,” she says.

Brown plans to continue performing. Her goal is twice a year, she says.

There have been many awards for Brown throughout her career, including the New York Dance and Performance Award, also known as the Bessie Award, which she received in 2010. It was an honor she received as a company member with Paradigm, an ensemble that includes legendary dancers such as Carmen de Lavallade, Dudley Williams and Gus Solomons Jr.

“It was one of my many proud moments, to receive that award,” she says.

Today as she takes up her new role as the leader of Garth Fagan Dance, Brown looks forward to celebrating the success of the Rochester dancers and furthering the legacy of a pioneer in modern dance.

“It is my honor and privilege to lead the company into the next stage of sustainability.”

Karen Brown
Position: Executive director, Garth Fagan Dance Inc.
Age: Not provided
Education: B.A. in performance arts, St. Mary’s College, Moraga, Calif., 2013
Family:  Mother, Ann Ponder Brown; father, Allen Brown; siblings, Allen Brown Jr., Lorraine Brown, Stephen Brown, Collin Brown, Marc Brown, Russell Brown
Residence: High Falls
Activities: Sewing, jewelry making, building things with her own tool kit, playing cards, especially bid whist
Quote: “I remember the first time I had a black ballet teacher. You see all the different ways you can be. You see how they empower you.”

7/29/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

One comment

  1. Garth Fagan has brought a phenomenal educator and practitioner of dance to the Company. Karen Brown is a creative powerhouse and nurturing teacher.

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