Two decades after their first collaboration, Tony Award-winning choreographer Garth Fagan and Grammy Award-winner Wynton Marsalis reunite for an electrifying new work called “Lighthouse/Lightning Rod” and a reprise of “Griot New York” (1992), both featuring a live performance by the Wynton Marsalis Septet and Garth Fagan Dance. NYC-ARTS caught up with the choreographer right before the “Lighthouse/Lightning Rod” premiere at Brooklyn Academy of Music to talk about the epic collaboration.
Q: What does 20 years do to a creative partnership like yours and Wynton’s?
A: In our case, it enriches it because whenever he performs, I go to see it, and my dancers go also. Whenever I perform, he and his band members come to see us. We’ve always been there for each other and when it comes to feedback, we talk straight to each other. We don’t wrap anything in sugar or bon bons.
Q: You were able to snag him at such a young age for your first collaboration, and he often calls you his mentor. In what ways have you been able to influence him as an artist?
A: Just that I was the first choreographer that he ever worked with. The first day I met him, he was 22 and I took him to my studio and showed him several of our dances. I can’t say what influence I’ve had on his art, but I’ve listened to him since he was a baby. I remember when I saw him first perform “Blood on the Field” and he blew a note that didn’t exist in the canons of music, but it was just perfect and so glorious.
Q: Since you two are so close, did you evolve in the same direction?
A: Oh lord no! We’re in different spheres. But I wanted to get back together and do some things we didn’t get to do the first time. I’ve collaborated with many people over the years, but with Wynton there’s this comfort level.
Q: Did you and Wynton create “Lighthouse/Lightning Rod” together or separately?
A: Separately. I gave him an idea of what I needed musically. We have known each other and worked together for so long that there’s absolute trust. He went on a long European tour and gave me nine pieces of music and said to use them as I choose. That’s a lot of freedom for a composer to give you. Thank God he loved what I did with them.
Q: What was the conceptual starting point you gave him?
A: Both lighthouses and lightning rods exist in very dangerous, precarious environments. Lighthouses help people in rough seas and if lightning rods don’t take the lightning into the earth, then the house will go to smithereens. Throughout life, we all have situations like that, where the territory is precarious, but you have something to guide you through and out of the situation. I’m a total optimist.
Q: You yourself have endured many such situations, including losing your daughter in a car crash.
A: She died when she was three years old and it’s driven me through life. And that’s why my women dancers are so strong. As you know, my women are fierce. They can leap with the best of the men.
Q: Is that why you chose Allison Saar to design your set? Her artwork is so feminine.
A: Allison’s work is very strong, very feminine, but not in a queasy way. She came up with a lighthouse that is the most beautiful 18-feet-tall woman with branches extending from her hair. It’s unlike any lighthouse you’ve ever seen.
Q: Wynton often says that jazz is dance music. How would you describe what that movement looks like?
A: With jazz, I never dance to the music. I dance with the music. That’s a very wide distinction. You can go see a dance concert where the music goes plink and the dancers go plink and the music goes plunk and the dancers go plunk. Not interested. I love to mind the space between the plink and the plunk. It offers a richer interpretation of the music and the movement. And the last section, honey, Wynton gave us some fast, brisk, beautiful lightning-rod music. It’s speed and sparks!
Q: Is this going to be the last time you two collaborate together?
A: No! Why would you say that darling? Wynton is only 50 years old.
Q: Yes, but you’re in your seventies. What about you?
A: I’m going to live to be as old as Merce. You know we artists go on forever.