As an educator, I’m curious about how childhood play and learning experiences shape individuals at the top of their creative fields. Recently I asked Garth Fagan, Tony Award winning choreographer of the Lion King, just that question.
“As a child,” Fagan began, “I loved anything that got me moving.”
One of his favorite haunts, an Olympic-size pool at Bournemouth Gardens in his Jamaican homeland, served as an irresistible place for games of chase and dare. Fagan recalled how he and his friends scrambled up the 35-foot tower and jumped just before being tagged by the designated chaser. He said, “It was very risky, and a boy activity, and madness.” He added, though, that play gave him the “courage to take risks, kick harder, dive better, swim faster, and to understand kinetically what the human body is capable of.”
Bournemouth Gardens also held another fascination for Fagan—a ballroom. He loved party dancing, which involved improvising flashy moves. With dance, Fagan explained, he became agile and poised and developed his understanding of movement.
“The Cha, Cha, the Mambo, and the Latin dances were popular when I was a teenager,” he said. “There were Cha Cha contests and Mambo contests and I started winning those. It was fun! I had no lofty ideals.” But Ivy Baxter, founder of the Jamaican National Dance Theater did.
Baxter invited Fagan to take classes at her studio. “I had no idea the classes would be so rigorous and that it wasn’t like party dancing,” he recalled. “There were specific steps you had to do, with specific shapes, to a specific rhythm, or piece of music. And that was ten times as hard as party dancing!” The rigor and risk of dance compelled him—as did the enchanting power his dances held over audiences.
Fagan pushed the boundaries through dance. Early on, he danced in silence. With no music to tap deep emotion, he relied on his own abilities as an artist. “Even back then I was a rule breaker,” he told me. “Nobody danced in silence back then. And I just thought, ‘what if I make up my own music as I dance?’ As an adult now, I love to listen to music intensely. Every note, every detail. And that is my favorite form of play.”
Fagan’s father, Jamaica’s chief academic officer, required him to attend concerts. After performances, Fagan senior would ask his son to critique them, to articulate his criteria for the performance, and to compare them to others he had experienced. “My parents were building in me the understanding that quality is quality. Listening to a Brahms sonata is as important as listening to jazz by Wynton Marsalis, or Duke Ellington. Listening to a solo work or an aria is as important as an entire chorale or orchestra. I used to dislike it intensely. And thank God my father insisted because it has taught me so much about quality.” Today, Fagan requires dancers at his company to attend performances—concerts, art galleries, portrait galleries, poetry readings, and others— wherever they travel and discuss them afterward.
Fagan values formal academic training, as well. Rehearsal schedules, Fagan explained, play notorious havoc with a dancer’s ability to perform well academically. He believes that teachers who demonstrate the connections between academic studies and dance will help dancers to excel in the classroom. “Understanding geography helps them navigate space and stage, numbers help them understand counts better, language skills are of the essence when you describe what a movement should be like.”
To underscore this last point, Fagan told me about a conversation he had with director Julie Taymor during their collaboration on The Lion King. In trying to describe the feel she wanted in the opening moments of the musical, Julie said, “I want it to look like a marmalade sunrise!’’ From that single eloquent and powerful phrase, the breath-taking opening choreography of the mega hit theatrical production was born.
It’s evident from our conversation that at age 71, Fagan’s childhood play remains a vital part of his life. He attributes his ability to stay on the edge to “stamina.” He said, “my style is very strong, so it’s important to keep that going, but still keep bending and breaking the rules to move the art form forward.”