During the pandemic, Garth Fagan Dance’s 50th anniversary came and went. But now, in its 52nd year, the company has reason to celebrate — and to shine — with a return to the Joyce Theater. Some programs feature a triumphantly titled premiere by Fagan, “Covid Virtue, Victory.”
The new work — Fagan, 82, created it just before the Joyce season — is a poignant, moody duet, set to John Coltrane. From the start, the arresting Keisha Laren Clarke Gray uses her limbs to dramatic effect. Crossing the stage forward and backward along a diagonal path, with her elbows anchored ever so slightly behind her back, she is consumed by solitude. Her intensity is magnetic; her expression, internal — at least until John Crim, a dancer with legs for days, joins her.
Until now, the landscape has seemed like Gray’s private space, but gradually Crim eases himself into her world with lifts that pin her to him in an elevated arabesque — it’s quite beautiful — or, with her body stretched like an X, turning her in the air. The more she relaxes, the more their bond grows, and by the final note, they’re braided together, two bodies finding peace as one.
It’s lean and tightly edited, qualities that the program, at nearly two and a half hours, could have used more of. Perhaps the length was an effort to get as many dancers onstage as possible, but the evening, with six works and two intermissions, lost its grip by the time Fagan’s three-part “Translation/Transition” (2002) rolled around at the end.
That’s a shame: It’s a lovely, spirited work with many standout moments, including a teasing duet between Gray — who also appeared for a silent, haunting solo — and Steve Humphrey, the company’s senior member. (The multigenerational aspect of Fagan’s group remains part of its joy.) But as entrancing as the dancing was, the night was too long.
Fagan is the Jamaican, Tony Award-winning choreographer of “The Lion King,” which is still running on Broadway, but up in Rochester, N.Y., where his company and school are based, he is known for something else: cultivating a legacy of Black dance and a generation of dynamic performers.
In the case of Norwood Pennewell, the company’s rehearsal director and a veteran dancer — his vivid elegance remains as the years add up — Fagan has produced something even more rare: a choreographer.
Opening night featured two Pennewell works, the first, “Dreamer” (2021), a quartet set to sometimes mystical-sounding music by Baljinder Sekhon II, in which a man (Davente Gilreath) finds himself in states of reverie under the gaze of three women (Gabrielle Samuel, Sabrina Cmelak and Daria Clarke). Are they witnesses? Guardian angels?
There’s a playful simplicity to the way Pennewell has costumed his cast — in leggings and tanks in mainly warm earth tones — that contrasts with the quiet, introspective quality of the choreography and with Gilreath’s final image, a contorted kind of squat, which he heroically holds until the curtain falls. In Pennewell’s second dance, “Contact Fours,” a world premiere, the playfulness is more vivacious, with a score that has a livelier beat, featuring flowing jazz by Marc Cary, DJ-9 and Masters of Groove.
The word “groove” is appropriate here as Pennewell opens the dance, another quartet, with a phrase he riffs on throughout: a weighted, bouncy skip and a sharp kick of the leg. Wearing Wendell C. Carmichael’s handsome unitards with crisscrossing geometric tops for the women — the dynamic duo of Samuel and Cmelak — the dancers appear like brush strokes on a canvas: each distinct yet utterly fluid whether spinning away from the others in a solo or conjoined in a same-sex duet.
“Contact Fours” feels like summer: Crim, sinking in a juicy plié, holds his long arms to either side and winds them in tight circles like a surfer without a wave. Gilreath has a serpentine calm, while Cmelak and Clarke slide into softer, more sultry patterns. As “Contact Fours” progresses, it loosens up, showing the lineage and progression between Fagan and Pennewell.
Drawing on the grounded strength of modern dance, the vivacity of Afro-Caribbean dance and the meticulousness of ballet, Fagan’s technique lends itself to feats of balance, which seem impossible until you see them with your own eyes. Even in their wobbles, there is something life-affirming about the effort the dancers display as they fight for equilibrium while leaning into a tilt or, with a burst of speed, spin across the stage with their arms down by their sides and seemingly little momentum. How do they do it?
It’s striking to see dancers move in such a specific, singular way when so much in contemporary dance and ballet seems interchangeable from one company to the next, and generic choreographic moves can start to feel like mush. Fagan’s dancers use their feet. They would never, say, slither around a stage in socks. Feeling the floor is part of what locates their strength and gives it roots.
Yes, the opening program was much too long, but the architecture of a Fagan body is an astounding sight. And what you won’t see? Mush.
Garth Fagan Dance
Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater; joyce.org