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Garth Fagan shares his love of dance and life with Northwestern students

Dance visionary Garth Fagan came to Northwestern University on Friday, Feb. 19, for a visit that was billed “A Conversation.” By the time it was over, Fagan had discussed his life in dance, but he also tossed in a little sermon on creativity and a plea for artistic commitment.

The event, co-sponsored by the Department of Theatre and Program in Dance, was held at the Josephine Louis Theater and moderated by Bonnie Brooks, associate professor of dance at Columbia College and a longtime friend of Fagan’s.

In her introduction, Brooks recounted Fagan’s numerous awards (including a Tony), his many and varied works (more than 70), his birthplace (Kingston, Jamaica), and his journey to dance, which included a stint studying psychology at Wayne State University.

Of course he didn’t become a psychologist, “But I’m sure you used those skills,” Brooks joked.

“With dancers,” Fagan said with devilish enthusiasm. “Yes, yes, yes.”

Fagan, 75, has been called a “trailblazer” and a “risk taker” throughout his career. He worked at several dance companies in Detroit in his 20s and moved to Rochester, N.Y., in 1970 where he formed his first company, now called Garth Fagan Dance. It was there, over the past 45 years, that he has built utterly original work that led to rich collaborations (Griot New York) and worldwide acclaim (The Lion King).

His passion for originality is one of his driving forces. “I love movement invention,” he said. “What you’re going to see on my stage is movement you’ve never seen before and didn’t think was possible. … I like to take a ‘jazz’ approach to movement.”

He urged students to build a spirit of artistic expression by listening “to the ideas in your head.”

“Listen to the pangs of excitement that you get in your soul,” he said. “Then try that out. But put a different spin on it. It’s your story, your ideas.”

Fagan encouraged students to leap for the stars. “It’s such a delicious feeling to be out there flying and not worrying about where you’re going to land,” he said. “Where else can you get that feeling? Standing still? No! … And that’s what’s good about dance.”

But Fagan also said that the best dancers are those who are aware of the world around them. They can draw influences from sports, from religion and from current events. “Intelligent dancers who are aware of what’s happening, they make the best dancers to me,” he said. “You can’t stay focused only on dance. You have to know what’s happening in the world. You have to have some opinions. … You can’t be in a vacuum.”

Friday’s visit included video excerpts of some of Fagan’s work, including his collaboration with jazzman and composer Wynton Marsalis and celebrated sculptor Martin Puryear from their critically acclaimed Griot New York. Northwestern dance students also performed a small preview of the Danceworks 2016 program. The piece they performed is an excerpt of Two Pieces of One: Green, which was choreographed by Fagan in 2008.

To his audience of about 50 students of dance, Fagan offered some words of encouragement — and advice.

“College is such a wonderful time,” he said. “A time for experimentation; good experimentation. … (But) stay away from these modern-day drugs – these synthetic drugs – that are killing you and damaging you. “

“But keep dancing,” Fagan added. “I love to have bright students following in my footsteps, doing my work. Hallelujah.”

Danceworks 2016 (Feb. 26-March 6), will feature the work of Fagan, Northwestern’s Dance Program director Joel Valentín-Martínez, 2015 Guggenheim Fellow Rosy Simas, Hedwig Dances Artistic Associate Maray Gutiérrez, and Northwestern Dance faculty member Jeff Hancock.

By Mark Wollemann