Master choreographer Garth Fagan honored by WSU

Karen Dybis
Special to The Detroit News

As a dancer, Garth Fagan has studied with some of the biggest names in the business: Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, José Limón.

The Wayne State University grad would add one influential person to that list — a WSU professor named Patricia Weller. Fagan said Weller balanced compliments with critiques without wounding the egos of young talent. Fagan, who has gone on to fame and accolades as a teacher, said he thinks about Weller's influence often.

"Pat would call me aside and give me cuss-outs when some days she'd say, 'Garth, that's not up to your standards; you can do better than that,' " Fagan laughed, recalling his on-campus antics during Detroit's turbulent 1960s. "But when she saw me doing something wonderful, she told me also. … She gave wise, wonderful counsel. It really nourished me."

Weller and other college memories will be part of Fagan's presentation as he receives the Apple Award from WSU's Maggie Allesee Department of Theatre and Dance. The honor is part of "A Conversation with Apple Award Recipient Garth Fagan" on March 28 at the Berman Center for the Performing Arts in West Bloomfield.

Fagan, whose mild Jamaican accent highlights his background, has traveled the world as a performer. Among career accomplishments are receiving a Tony Award for Best Choreography in "The Lion King," founding his own dance company (Garth Fagan Dance in New York) as well as directing Detroit's All-City Eastside Dance Company and serving as principal soloist and choreographer for Detroit Contemporary Dance Company and Dance Theatre of Detroit.

The Apple Award brings a nationally prominent theater professional to Detroit and the WSU campus as a guest lecturer to interact with and educate the Department of Theatre and Dance through master classes and a question-and-answer style forum. Previous Apple Award winners include Neil Simon, Carol Channing, Mandy Patinkin, Patti Lupone and Tom Skerritt.

Fagan said dance fascinates him because it allows humans to communicate so much more than they could with words. The challenge of using the body to tell a story is a dancer's opportunity and challenge. For example, "The Lion King" asked dancers to move gracefully — even sensually — while wearing huge puppets. Yet Fagan found the artfulness within the characters and his dancers to illustrate a Disney story about a young lion becoming king of his pride.

"At first, I wondered: Disney and me? Disney was 'Snow White' and 'Sleeping Beauty.' And I had just completed a show in Paris with Wynton Marsalis with male and female topless dancers where the audience wouldn't stop applauding," Fagan said. "But I got a copy of 'The Lion King' movie, and I fell madly in love with it. … It's been one of the most delightful things I've ever done."

He said his Apple Award presentation will include some multimedia to appeal to today's students. But he rues the way dancers bring their smartphones and other devices into the studios.

"Life is too short. So don't waste it for God's sake. Read. Investigate. Try new things," Fagan said. "These days, there are so many distractions. Now, there's the Electronic Goddess to lure them. … I tell my dancers and students: Leave the cellphones out of the studio because this is a holy place. This is a place of work and aesthetics."

Karen Dybis is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

'A Conversation with Apple Award Recipient Garth Fagan'

7 p.m. Saturday

The Berman Center for the Performing Arts

6600 West Maple, West Bloomfield

Ticket: $25, (313) 577-2972,