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"Lion King" choreographer reflects on 20 years of success

Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

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Garth Fagan likes to crack that he "was a wee babe" when he choreographed "The Lion King" 20 years ago.

Fagan is 76 now, by the way.

Nevertheless, the Jamaican-born and Wayne State University-educated artist says that the two decades since the blockbuster 1994 Disney film was turned into a stage musical has flown by.

"It doesn't feel like 20 years," Fagan says by phone from his home in Rochester, N.Y. "We have been all over the world wtih 'The Lion King,' so that enriches me and encourages me. Its' been seen by several cultures, races, lifestyle, creeds -- all over. And they cheer for it in all the right places."

Fagan has certainly soaked up some of those applause himself. His choreography for "The Lion King" -- with its inventive use of life-size puppetry and interpretive dance -- won Tony, Drama Desk and Critics Choice awards in 1998, and a Lauence Olivier Award in Britian two years later. Fagan is gratified by the success, but he's not entirely surprised, either.

"Dance is a big element 'The Lion King,'" he explains. "Everybody dances from start to finish, so I'm very proud of that. When we first did it we set out for it to be ne, fresh and completely inventive. And after the first number in the first show, the audience erupted -- that's the only word I can use -- and wouldn't stop applauding.

"So we knew we were on to something good."

Fagan was certainly well-established in the theater and dance world before "The Lion King." A gymnast who had embraced dance while growing up in Jamaica, Fagan moved to Detroit during 1960 first to study psychology at Wayne State, but he soon switched to English "because dance started to consume me." He was teaching as well as performing, and he went on to perform and choreograph with the Detroit Contemporary Dance Company and the Dance Theatre of Detroit serve as director of the city's All-City Dance Company. It was a fertile time to be in the city, and Fagan soaked up inspiration from the rise of Motown Records to Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech at Cobo Arena to the 1967 riots.

"So much was happening. It was a wonderful environment," Fagan recalls. "Real artists, we work from places of seclusion but we have to be aware of what's going on in the world so we can make contemporary comment and illumination in our work."

Fagan went on to Rochester, N.Y., in 1970 working as a professor at the State University of New York, Brockport, then went to Manhattan to work with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, the Dance Theatre of Harlem and more, creating his own celebrated pieces such as "Griot New York" and "Moth Dreams" among others. He hadn't seen "The Lion King" when he was first approached to choreograph it (his own children were grown), but a friend loaned him the video, and he "fell madly in love with it," enthusiastically signing on to the stage adaptation.

These days Fagan's work focuses mostly on restoring some of his older works, with an opportunity to take one, "Mudan," to China this year. "The Lion King," meanwhile, is an enduring favorite, and Fagan is confident it will still be roaring into theaters around the world for another two decades.

"I'll always remember that (former Disney chief) Michael Eisner once said to me, when ('The Lion King') was in Japan, 'Garth, they're speaking in Japanese, but they're still dancing Fagan," he says. "I thanked him for that comment. We change the language as we go, but the dancing is universal."

"The Lion King"

February 1-26.

Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway St.

Tickets are $69-$202.

Call 313-237-7464 or visit broadwayindetroit.com.

Web Site: www.broadwayindetroit.com

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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