Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham
Tuesday, Feb. 16–Sunday, March 20, $33–$83

The work for which most choreographers will be rem-embered remains a toss-up as long as they’re alive. Not so with Garth Fagan, whose five decades of fusing modern experimentation and balletic rigor with African and Caribbean dance won him a lifetime achievement award at Durham’s American Dance Festival in 2001.

Still, it’s his Tony-winning choreography for Disney’s musical The Lion King that has been seen by millions since it opened in 1997. Now it’s the third-longest-running show on Broadway, and the touring version, directed by Julie Taymor, begins a month-long run at DPAC this week. We spoke with the boisterously laughing choreographer about coming around to Disney, crafting a bona fide hit, and the challenges of dancing with puppets.

INDY: How did you get to choreograph The Lion King?

GARTH FAGAN: At first, I really didn’t want to do it. My kids were grown; my grandkids were grown by then. I hadn’t seen the movie of The Lion Kingmy knowledge of Disney was Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. When my office wanted to find if I had any interest, I said, “What am I going to do with Disney?”

Then, when I heard I was one of three finalists, I said to the woman in charge at NBC in New York, “Loan me your Lion King so I can see it.” I fell in love with it. And once I heard that Julie Taymor and Tom Schumacher, head of Disney’s theatrical division, were involved, I was happy. These were people who knew what theater was about. Not just suits, you know. [Laughs]

Had you had any previous experiences with Julie Taymor?

Julie had seen Griot New York, the piece I’d done with Wynton Marsalis [at BAM’s Next Wave Festival in 1991]. She asked me to meet with her, and I fell in love with the process, her detailed drawings, and the passion she had about the piece.

What was it like working with the composers and musicians on the project?

Elton John’s music was already written, but [South African composer and arranger] Lebo M. hadn’t put in his work yet. He changed “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” He put the rhythm and drums under it. I would do the dances, Lebo would come in, and then he, myself, and Norwood Pennewell and Natalie Rogers, stars in my company, would all meet. We’d say, “A little bit more, dance a little bit more” or “Can you accent that?”

What was the most challenging aspect of the production?

The puppets! You know, dancers pride themselves on their bodies, because the human body is the instrument of the dance. But when you take some highly trained dancers and put them in puppets, we found, at first, they fall apart.

First, you’re not seeing the beautiful body in all its glory. Second, it’s added weight. Remember the scene where the gazelles come leaping in? Each dancer has a gazelle on one arm, a gazelle on the other arm, and one on the head! [Puppet designer] Michael Curry did such an excellent job. His wife was a dancer, so he understood that we didn’t need any extra weight. And my dancers were completely fearless. But their center of balance was off, because of these appendages.

Sometimes success in these projects is obvious from the start, but other times it’s much less certain. When did you know you had a hit on your hands?

On opening night during the previews in Minneapolis. After the opening number, the audience went completely bananas. Once that applause went up, oh my God, it never stopped for the entire night. That’s when we knew the public could see it.

Do you have favorite moments in the choreography?

The lioness dance. They hunt for the pride, so they tear up great chunks of meat, but Julie dressed them in silk. So I had to keep a duality of imagery, very female, but at the same time, in charge and strong.

I love the hyenas, because they’re the bad guys: strong, rhythmic, athletic, great big jumps, fast turnsall of that.

What’s the most difficult part?

The last dance. We call it “the confrontation,” when the lionesses and the hyenas meet. It has lots of leaps, turns, and liftsand by then, remember, the dancers have already been dancing for two hours. It’s a very difficult dance. They have to give it their all. And when they do, it’s such a real boost, for them and the audience.

Why was it important to you to combine so many dance forms in The Lion King?

My dancers had to be able to do African and Caribbean dance, ballet and modern dance, because I wanted any child who came into the theater to see the dance that they had studiedand dance they hadn’t studied, but that might be interesting to them.

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