At 83, ‘Lion King’ Choreographer Garth Fagan is still Inventing Moves

Garth Fagan Dance Collection, Library of Congress
Garth Fagan began dancing as a young man in Jamaica.

Choreographer Garth Fagan has seen roaring success: The Jamaican-born dancemaker won a Tony Award in 1998 for choreographing “The Lion King,” a musical that has been viewed by so many theatergoers – on Broadway and across the nation and the world – as to make him one of the most visible Black choreographers in history.

But “The Lion King” merely leads the pack when it comes to Fagan’s achievements. His dances – created principally for his 50-plus-year Rochester, N.Y.-based company, Garth Fagan Dance – are celebrated for their distinctive and technically demanding style, which draws on Afro-Caribbean and modern dance influences and combines ballet-caliber precision with virtuosic flourishes such as abrupt leaps and daring tilts.

Garth Fagan Dance has shown off its moves in more than 660 cities on six continents, and Fagan’s works have been performed by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and New York City Ballet, among other troupes.

In February, the Library of Congress announced that it had acquired the papers of Fagan and his company, recognizing that he is in a league with dance greats such as Martha Graham, Bob Fosse, Gwen Verdon, Alvin Ailey and others whose archives are in the library’s collection.

The 83-year-old Fagan says he hopes the collection will demonstrate that his career has been about “movement invention”: “I believe in coming up with new fresh moves and new fresh ways of looking.”

Libby Smigel, dance curator in the Library of Congress’s music division, calls Garth Fagan Dance a “national treasure” with “its own special take and connection to music, as well as to rhythm and expression and cultural issues.” Making the Fagan archives as accessible as possible – selected materials will eventually be put online, for example – is part of the library’s effort “to make the case that performing arts are a part of American history,” Smigel said.

The newly acquired Fagan archive includes audio and visual recordings, photographs, programs, correspondence and more. The library’s catalogue entry for the collection cites nearly 30 linear feet of material, or approximately 7,110 items, but that tally could double or triple over time, Smigel estimates, especially because Fagan and his troupe are still in business.

The transmission of the trove to the library has begun, as has accessioning (sorting through and processing items on the library’s end). Smigel says the library anticipates making on-site materials available in less than two years, with digital content added in installments thereafter.

The collection stretches back to Fagan’s youth in Jamaica, where he was born in 1940 and where he studied with Ivy Baxter, an eminence of Caribbean dance. While in high school, he joined Baxter’s Jamaican troupe. In 1960, he came to the United States to study psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit, but he ultimately dedicated himself to dance, training with Ailey, Graham, Mary Hinkson and José Limón.

After a faculty appointment to State University of New York Brockport drew Fagan to Upstate New York, he began teaching dance at an affiliated education center in Rochester, where he was so inspired by his students – many of whom had little or no training and were economically disadvantaged – that he founded a troupe to showcase their talents. The company, initially called Bottom of the Bucket BUT … Dance Theater, debuted in 1970. National and world recognition would follow.

But it was Fagan’s work on the hugely popular Broadway musical “The Lion King” that catapulted him to the artistic big time. The movement in that show remained true to Fagan’s athletically charged aesthetic, according to William J. Ferguson II, a former Fagan dancer and the company’s former executive director.

“The way ‘The Lion King’ moves onstage is the way that Garth Fagan Dance moves onstage. The way that the groupings move onstage is the way that Garth saw groupings for Garth Fagan Dance,” Ferguson says, adding that “Garth’s understanding of how to bring a Black aesthetic to whatever type of dance he was creating” helped make the blockbuster musical extraordinary.

With a touring production of “The Lion King” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., through July 29, here are highlights from the Library of Congress’s Fagan collection that cast more light on the choreographer’s broader career and legacy.

Looking back at his time dancing as a young man in Jamaica, Fagan remembers how much he revered Baxter – “my teacher, my mentor, my muse, my everything.” In this photograph from the late-1950s, Fagan is backstage at the Ward Theatre in Kingston – warming up or fine-tuning a dance sequence, he recalls. “I was a big jumper,” he says. “For a short man, I can get up there!” (He is 5-foot-9.)

Memories of that moment pale in comparison to his recollection of how nervous he was, years later, when Baxter saw his company perform in the United States. To his relief, he recalls, “she hugged me and said, ‘Baby, this is beautiful. What I taught you, you illuminated for me onstage – and added some new stuff.'”

Among the qualities Fagan values in dancers, he says, are musicianship and “vulnerability – so they can try different things, things that are not comfortable to them, things that they have never done before.” The abrupt jumps in his choreography fall into this potentially uncomfortable category. “I don’t want the audience to know what you’re preparing to do. I just want you to do it,” Fagan explains. The sudden leaps are “very hard,” the choreographer admits. “But once they get it: Hallelujah!”

This photograph – of Fagan dancers Joel Valentin, Natalie Rogers-Cropper, Ferguson and Lutin Tanner rehearsing the 1997 work “Nkanyit” – captures that hallelujah quality.

Some of Fagan’s dancers keep performing well past the age peers at other companies call it quits. For example, Rogers-Cropper is still dancing at age 61, and Steve Humphrey, an original member of the company, is 71. Veteran performers, Fagan says, are a valuable resource. “You bring to your art form lots of stuff that you learned and experienced in life,” he says.

Before Fagan joined forces with director Julie Taymor on “The Lion King,” he engaged in another major piece of cross-disciplinary teamwork: “Griot New York,” created with trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis and sculptor Martin Puryear. A full-length work that touches on New York’s non-European heritage, “Griot” premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival in 1991.

This photo of “Griot,” from 2003, displays the strength and virtuosity of Fagan’s dancers, in this case Norwood Pennewell and Nicolette Ferguson. “Fagan’s technique encourages us to notice the effort and the expertise of the dancing artists, the musculature and the articulation,” says Thomas F. DeFrantz, a professor at Northwestern University whose writings include “Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African American Dance.”

As Fagan choreography unfurls, DeFrantz says, “every movement of the rib cage, of the hip, of the calf muscle even, of the tilt of the shoulder – he wants all of that to be visible to the audience, in a way that other choreographers just don’t.”

The archive includes handwritten notes that Fagan and his associates made while rehearsing his dances – in this case, the early-2000s work “Music of the Line/Words in the Shape,” set to music by John Adams.

Library of Congress dance curator Smigel says the “Music of the Line” notes, created to give dancers feedback, are written in many hands, including Fagan’s and those of William Ferguson and Rogers-Cropper. Such notes are a big draw for researchers, Smigel wrote about the collection, because the writings “can be a window into how the dance is born, and then how it continues,” illuminating such matters as “timing, spacing, engagement (where to look), line” and other important details.

Performance programs are among the archive’s treasures, says Smigel, noting that researchers “find nuggets of gold inside programs, from confirmation of information they have found elsewhere to anecdotes, artist statements and more.” This program, from a Garth Fagan Dance performance at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 2003, shows one of the company’s frequent programming strategies: opening a performance with “Prelude: Discipline Is Freedom” (1981; revised 1983), set to music by Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) and Max Roach.

“Prelude,” which at moments can evoke a dance class, orients audiences to Fagan’s choreographic vocabulary, preparing them to appreciate subsequent fare. At the same time, Smigel says, the piece showcases individuality: “Instead of looking like a ballet corps de ballet, where everyone’s doing exactly the same thing, ideally, with their hands in exactly the same place, the dancers will be embellishing a little different. And it makes the energy very different.”

Fagan says the title “Prelude: Discipline Is Freedom” is a pointed heads-up to viewers. “This is not the dance about sugar plum fairies or anything else,” he says. “This is a prelude. This is the discipline that gives dancers the freedom to perform and jump and turn and do all the things that you enjoy as an audience.”

Garth Fagan Dance Collection, Library of Congress
From left: Joel Valentin, Natalie Rogers-Cropper, William J. Ferguson II and Lutin Tanner in the 1997 dance “Nkanyit.”