Garth Fagan, the founder of Garth Fagan Dance and the award-winning choreographer of the hit Broadway musical, The Lion King, was honored at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture during a festive ending of dance, song, spoken word and tributes on Feb. 20.
In addition to being the winner of a Tony, Olivier and Helpmann Award, Fagan recently earned the distinction as the longest-running Black choreographer in Broadway history. His stellar contributions to The Lion King, which opened in 1997 at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York, were honored during a star-studded 25th anniversary performance, Nov. 14, 2022. The musical continues to be performed in New York City and around the world, much to the delight of audiences young and old.
The event, presented at the Smithsonian’s Oprah Winfrey Theater served as one of the venue’s many Black History Month celebrations and included a performance directed and written by Rufus Bonds Jr., with reimagined Garth Fagan choreography by Norwood Pennewell, new choreography by Pennewell and Natalie Rogers-Cooper and additional staging from The Lion King by Ruthlyn Salomons.
Bonds talked about the legendary choreographer after the conclusion of the program.
“He [Garth Fagan] takes care of his dancers and instills in them character, purpose and enrichment,” said Bonds who serves as the resident director for The Lion King. “When Disney asked me to do this, there was no way I could say no. I have been part of this production ever since I performed the role of Mufasa years ago on Broadway and on tour.”
“After leaving my career as a performer, I turned my attention to teaching at Syracuse University, which owes a great deal to Garth who formed and shaped his dance company there. As for my friend Garth, continuing to work with him has allowed me and so many other even greater opportunities – pathways on which one can continue to learn and grow.”
Over 112 million people worldwide have seen the musical which has earned numerous awards and honors, including six Tony Awards, one for Best Musical and Best Direction of a Musical, making director Julie Taymor the first woman to earn such an honor.
Taymor attended the celebration and shared heartfelt remarks about Fagan with whom she has worked since The Lion King’s debut.
“Garth and I are a great team, he is my friend and more, and I proudly salute him and his many accomplishments,” she said. “He taught me, as he has all his students, that discipline is freedom – that limitation is freedom. And he has shown the world that the unvarnished truth of African Americans and the Diaspora can and should continue forever. He has shown that he’s committed to being part of that ongoing legacy.”
The performance featured dancers from The Lion King, including Michelle Camaya, Willia Noel Montague, Karine Plantadit, and Bravita Threatt with Daria Clarke, Keisha Clarke Gray, Sabrina Cmelak, John Crim, Steve Humphrey, Ira Lindsay, Nathan McNatt Jr., Norwood Pennewell, Natalie Rogers-Cropper and Gabrielle Samuel from Garth Fagan Dance.
L. Steven Taylor (The Lion King Broadway) served as the program narrator, with vocalist Nova Payton, and featured percussionists from The Lion King, Horace Junior Wedderburn, and Rolando Morales-Matos.
The program concluded with comments from Denise Robinson Simms, Associate Director of External Affairs, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Taymor, and Sara Nash and Greg Reiner, Director of Dance and Director of Theater & Musical Theater for the National Endowment for the Arts, who presented and read a letter of congratulations to Fagan from President Joe Biden.
The Incredible Journey of Garth Fagan
Fagan, 82, born in Jamaica, West Indies in 1940, the son of an Oxford-educated father and Jamaica’s chief education officer, began performing with Ivy Baxter’s Jamaican National Dance Company while still in high school. In 1960, he moved to the U.S. to earn an undergraduate degree in psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit.
While he says his father was originally less than supportive of his interest in dance, preferring that his son embark upon a more traditional career that would guarantee financial security, Fagan said he could not ignore his passion for dance nor escape its electrifying attraction. So, he continued to dance while pursuing his undergraduate degree. Then, just before completing his master’s program, he left academia, determined to answer his true calling: dance.
At the conclusion of the program, Fagan was asked to join his dancers, and those who had given remarks of praise and congratulations. As he began to speak, his excitement was evident.
“I want to thank everyone here in the audience and here on stage who have shown their love and support this evening, traveling from all across America,” Fagan said. “I am especially honored to have now been recognized by not one, but two presidents, President Obama and tonight, President Biden. I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to realize my dreams. And to make my family, especially my father, proud of me and what I have accomplished. I could have never imagined how far I would come – the many hearts I have been able to touch. And there’s still more I plan to do and to create.”