Garth Fagan Dance, RIT collaboration: NY PopsUp event will be ‘a feather in both our caps’

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — The opening weekend of the governors arts revitalization plan of NYS PopsUp will be featuring two Rochester institutions. On February 21st, legendary choreographer and company Garth Fagan Dance will lead a special performance at the MAGIC Spell Studios at the Rochester Institute of Technology as a tribute for the staff who have made it possible for RIT to stay open and safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lineup announcement was originally made yesterday, and the lineup included many national and international celebrities, making this uniquely regional and Rochester performance remarkable.

Both David Long, Director of the RIT Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction & Creativity (MAGIC), as well as William J. Ferguson II, the acting Executive Director for Garth Fagan Dance, see this collaboration as a way for two Rochester institutions to work together, collaborate, create while having integrity, bring the Garth Fagan Dancers make from a furlough since June, and bring dance to the masses. Not to mention a small live audience of pre-tested RIT students, faculty, and staff.

“Garth Fagan is a huge institution in this town,” Long said. “Being able to stand them up as evidence to return bit of normalcy, some fulfillment of people’s desire for live performance, of live exposure to the arts… Is a great challenge for us, and we’re excited about it.”

“Institutions in Rochester are siloed,” Ferguson said. “Everyone is working their own thing.”

A comment that is sure prompt an emphatic “yes” to many in the Rochester arts community.

Over a Zoom call Tuesday, Ferguson spoke at length about the vision, style, and integrity of Garth Fagan Dance. Few arts organizations in Rochester — and maybe even the country — embody “integrity” more than Garth Fagan Dance.

Everything they do stems from the vision of Fagan, his team, and the dancers. Ferguson has been with the company for 32 years (in the same breath joking about how his new role and COVID arrived at the same time), and he listed musicians and dancers that have been in the company for even longer than him.

So while this new pop up opportunity presents many challenges — the least of which starts with both RIT and Garth Fagan Dance getting calls for the gig within the past two weeks — the dance company has an ace in the hole:

Celebrating their 50th anniversary, albeit a year late. With this programming in their back pocket, Ferguson says they can balance the grittiness of a pop up show, while still maintaining the excellence of Garth Fagan Dance.

“While Garth Fagan Dance started at a place without lights, no (real) floor… And that makes to the integrity of Garth Fagan Dance… this is still 2021,” Ferguson said. “And it was important that as an institution, if we’re doing a pop up, it’s not going to be a regular pop up.”

But the company did start 2020 with the spirit collaboration in mind: in January, the dance company teamed up with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra for an incredible performance, followed by a collaboration with the City of Rochester’s Black Heritage Committee at Hochstein, followed by a planned collaboration with Monty Alexander for the Rochester International Jazz Festival.

As far as the program, it includes “Talking Drums” featuring Vitolio Jeune, a solo called “Triptych” Rishell Maxwell (with music composed by Keith Jarrett), a piece called “North Star” written for Frederick Douglass (which will also feature the dance company’s own Frederick Douglass statue) and other called “Memoriam.”

Ferguson also thinks that this piece, dedicated to the victims and survivors of 9/11, has special meaning during this pandemic; as they think of the over 400,000 people who have died as a result of the pandemic, and how their loved ones can’t be with them.

“The space between the dancers will only illuminate the space between the loved one and those who have perished,” he said.

As for the creative options that come with the use of MAGIC’s 7,000 square foot space — it was casually mentioned that it has hosted feature films there — Long and his team are still figuring that out. But he says they’ve got a handle on it.

“This is what we do,” Long said. “The film production world… they can come in last minute with tremendous requirements and needs, and they’ve gotten good at reacting to those needs, and to service whatever everyone brings us.”

Ferguson says that the technical capabilities will greatly enhance the performance, but he says that the collaboration itself is the most promising.

“We can work with RIT and do something that has never been done before… And everyone is excited about doing something that hasn’t been done before, in a way that hasn’t been done before… I think is a feather in the cap of both organizations,” he said.

Rapid testing will be provided by the state ahead of the event at RIT. Ferguson says the dance company has been testing regularly, and both parties are prepared for any changes. They are still even ironing out how they will present the final product.

That said, for Ferguson and Long, this venture is an opportunity to showcase the incredible art, artistry, and integrity of Garth Fagan Dance. And while the pandemic have robbed the dance company of a chance to do large events, fundraising, or perform their usual haunts or the planned collaborations for their 50th anniversary, this new level of exposure — as well as a new digital platform — will give so many people their first taste of modern dance.

“I want everybody who is new to the show to understand that whatever they get from the show is valid,” he said. “If you’re thinking it, its right.”

Ferguson says that they plan on using this collaboration as a launching pad to start working with as many other institutions as possible.

“They say Rochester is a city of the arts,” he said. “Well this is your chance to put prove it. Put your money where your mouth is.”