Complexions Contemporary Ballet
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
November 30, 2022
Program B: Slingerland Pas de Deux, Serenity (world premiere), System, Snatched Back from the Edges (excerpt), Endgame/Love One (world premiere)
Certain dance companies are brands. Of course the company name identifies them and distinguishes them from others, but that’s not what I mean. Some dance companies reliably present their product – choreography and performance – in a manner that remains relatively consistent from performance to performance, and that audiences anticipate seeing. Complexions Contemporary Ballet is one of them. Without limiting the breadth of the dances they present, Complexions is known for furiously paced choreography that, while still ballet, expands the idea of what ballet looks like without butchering its language, and for its company of dancers of the highest artistic and physical caliber. Whether one likes the product or not, what a viewer gets from a Complexions program is primarily (though not necessarily exclusively) the ballet “brand” that the company reliably produces and performs so well. This brand was on full view in the company’s second program last Wednesday during its second week of performances at the Joyce.
Even though not in performance order, I’ll address these “brand” pieces first, and then return to the exceptions that opened the program, two of which, Serenity and System, are particularly memorable and which, to an extent, go against the brand grain.
I have favorable opinions, albeit tempered in certain respects, of the two “brand” pieces I saw. The first was an excerpt from Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director Dwight Rhoden’s Snatched Back from the Edges. I was one of the few to have seen the complete dance in its one premiere performance last year before a Covid eruption forced cancelation of all the company’s remaining Joyce performances, and upon seeing this excerpt (or collection of excerpts) my feelings about it remain the same.
Snatched Back in its complete form is a powerful work that accomplishes what Rhodan intends it to. Created during the pandemic and inspired by the endemic gun violence, racial inequity, and social struggles that the pandemic exposed and exacerbated, here Rhoden celebrates the resulting advocacy for change and the inner strength that propels the world forward. As I observed last year, Rhoden’s dance focuses on emotions rather than actions, and its non-narrative approach makes the point more subtly, and more effectively, than do many others.
The excerpt presented here (or excerpts, since more than one may have been combined) is necessarily more limited in scope, and as a consequence, more clear, with the stridency and purpose accentuated. Indeed, as I watched its concluding moments I saw echoes of the similar visualization of societal advocacy presented in Broadway’s (and before that, the West End’s) Les Miserables, although not on that masterwork’s scale, here focusing on mistreated and/or marginalized segments of American society and their supporters rather than the French masses in protests that eventually led to the French Revolution.
That being said, I don’t think the Joyce audience much cared. After the three duets that opened the program, which I’ll address below, this was what they were waiting for – the explosion of Complexion’s brand of powerful, fast-paced, and highly athletic dance, where the Complexions dancers apparently spend every ounce of their energy on stage. At its conclusion the audience erupted. This is what they came to see.
The same brand, and the same quality, was on full display during the ballet that filled the program’s second half: Endgame/Love One. This piece’s apparent subject, the search for love in the context of a greater society, is not unusual, and in that respect Rhoden doesn’t really present anything new here. More importantly, I didn’t discern anything resembling a theme in the piece (which had its world premiere the previous night) until three or four parts of the eight-part dance had passed. A second view might make an earlier theme appearance more apparent, but the duality of the ballet’s title may also be what the dance as a whole reflects, and so somewhat of a limited disconnect between the first part of the dance and the second might have been intentional.
But the dance’s theme isn’t nearly as important in Endgame/Love One as the manner in which it’s presented. Complexion’s brand of relentless physicality stretches the limits of ballet athleticism in ways that no other ballet company (at least of those I’ve seen) can approach, much less deliver, but which Complexions owns. It was a remarkable exhibition of raw but also refined talent, with the Complexions dancers thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to display their undeniable skills, which Rhoden’s choreography fully exploited. Every member of the company (plus apprentices) excelled, but seeing Thomas Dilley’s masterful execution throughout, including a set of astounding turns a la seconde that would be the envy of any danseur in any ballet company (equaled by other bravura moves that were equally impressive but that don’t fit neatly into a particular category), was particularly unforgettable.
One further observation, and a point I recall making previously. Rhoden’s choreography, particularly evident here, masterfully adopts some Balanchine characteristics, particularly with respect to stagecraft and speed. As with certain Balanchine pieces, Rhoden moves his dancers, primarily in groups, on and off the stage frequently, and in the process often forces them, upon returning to stage, to quickly assume positions before the next choreographic sequence begins. Seeing this in the context of a Balanchine dance is routine; seeing it executed by Complexions is something else again.
But also, and also as I’ve observed previously, some level of finesse is sacrificed in the name of speed. Arabesques often pitch one way or another, for example. A more serious concern, and one I hadn’t noticed previously, is in partnering, where I observed several instances of sloppy hand positioning as certain men tried to lift their partner. In both cases of these examples there wasn’t time to make any adjustments since the choreographic positioning changed so fast, but in the second case, perhaps some attention should be paid.
In any event, the audience got what it came for in Endgame/Love One and arose en masse with a standing ovation upon the piece’s conclusion.
As indicated at the outset, the program began with three pas de deux. Each was performed exceptionally well, and two were standouts for their choreography and message.
The evening opened with Slingerland Pas de Deux, a 1989 piece by William Forsythe. Notwithstanding its sterling execution by veteran Jillian Davis and Joe González, in his first year with the company, I found it choreographically vacuous – intentionally so.
To be correct, based on limited research the original 1989 Forsythe piece was an evening-length ballet titled Slingerland. The following year, the pas de deux was excerpted from it. There is also a piece titled Slingerland Duet, which again, based only on cursory observation, may be, or may contain elements from, the original Slingerland pas de deux, but that’s not clear. Even if they’re one and the same choreographically, the photographs I’ve seen from Slingerland Duet show that it abandons the original costumes that Forsythe used in the full-length ballet. The Slingerland Pas de Deux presented here resuscitates these original costumes – or at least the costume for the ballerina. [The program note credits costume reconstruction by Christine Darch, as well as lighting reconstruction by Michael Korsch.] I suspect that the costume change reflected in Slingerland Duet was to make the pas de deux appear more palatable – Forsythe’s “plastic”-looking tutus (a Forsythe affectation present in other ballets he created) were replaced by more contemporary-looking (and less strange-looking) short ballet skirts. Here it’s back to plastic.
Forsythe has been, and remains, a highly popular choreographer in Europe. Although several American companies have attempted to incorporate many of his ballets (e.g., Pacific Northwest Ballet; Boston Ballet), his choreography has never attained the status or the acceptance in the U.S. as have the creations of other choreographers.
I haven’t been impressed with those Forsythe dances I’ve seen (although admittedly they’re only a small fraction of his overall output) because, although certainly competently choreographed and different, too often to me they appear to be intentionally icy and mechanical, and/or take cheap shots at ballet as the art form has been established and refined here (which may explain why his choreography is more popular in Europe). The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, which PNB brought to New York several years ago, is an example of what I saw as Forsythe using classical ballet form to mock classical ballet rigidity and precision, from his use of garish-colored pancake tutus to overbaked posing and pointless combinations. And The Second Detail, which Boston Ballet performed here in 2014, aside from looking unusually busy, to me showed only Forsythe’s facility for making ballet vocabulary look forced and awkward, as well as apparently (since I could see no other explanation for it) visualizing that his choreography is better than “the” way it’s been presented previously – by having something that looks like a cemetery footstone with the word “THE” emblazoned on it kicked over during the course of his piece.
But there are exceptions. In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated is one of the better (and most well-known) examples of his work, but the finest performances of it that I’ve seen were performed by Ekaterina Kondaurova and Sylvie Guillem, each of whom could make any piece look good just by being in it. And Herman Schmerman, which Forsythe created for New York City Ballet, appears also to be something of an exception with its manifest sense of humor (at least with respect to the “Schmerman” part of it, as I’ve previously distinguished its two parts).
As presented here, Slingerland Pas de Deux is an example of the “intentionally icy and mechanical” aspect of his work, as well as perhaps a backhand expression of contempt for classical ballet as we know it. And as well-executed as it was, it’s choreographically dull unless seeing Davis, an exceptionally tall though thoroughly competent ballerina, repeatedly stretched seemingly to the point of reaching the stage rafters and González delivering a superb job partnering her by themselves are sufficient to make the piece entertaining. To me, as thrilling as it looked to see Davis fully extended to her body’s limit and beyond, and then to see it again, and again, it wasn’t. [All the Complexions dancers create extensions to infinity, but they’re not supersized.]
All I recall of the choreography’s substance are repeated forward and back and side to side variations of the same steps (not variations on a theme – the same steps), performed in a relatively confined space that served to emphasize the extreme ballet posing and limited vocabulary that Forsythe presents here. And the little plastic tutu that was attached to and circumnavigated Davis’s waist, which might have originally been designed by Pringles, just emphasized the strangeness of it, as did the dancers’ intentional (perhaps required) flat, emotionless delivery.
The other two duets were exceptional, and enable me to close this review on a positive note.
I’ve not previously seen a piece choreographed by Jae Man Joo, one of Complexions’s artists in residence, but judged by Serenity, he’s unusually capable. The dance, which had its world premiere the previous night, is an extraordinary piece of work, and was given an extraordinary performance by Dilly and Vincenzo Di Primo.
To some, a male/male duet carries with it inevitable questions relating to the extent to which the implicit relationship between the two, assuming there is one, is portrayed. There’s definitely a relationship of some sort that develops between the characters, and it’s clearly physical and intimate, but there’s nothing at all salacious about it. It’s a relationship like others but different, and physical to the extent the dancers constantly interact either physically or emotionally or, most often, both. Compared to other similar dances I’ve seen, however, here the emphasis is on interdependence and finesse of execution. Although passion is certainly a component, Serenity is way beyond that in its choreographic force – even when there’s no physical interaction at all (e.g., for a time Dilly is visualized walking clockwise around the perimeter of an invisible circle that surrounds Di Primo, and apparently weighing a decision he’s about to make, and then the two switch positions – in the end, caution having been evaluated and overcome, igniting together in mutual acceptance.
As brilliantly choreographed as it was, the dance couldn’t have succeeded as well as it did if Dilley and Di Primo hadn’t made it real. Their performances of this highly complex (physically and emotionally) duet was truly exceptional. A viewer’s orientation is essentially irrelevant: Serenity, as presented here, is an illuminated, tranquil state of mind, a state of acceptance, that isn’t gender-specific.
The last of the three duets before the “brand” presentations was System, a piece choreographed in 2017 by Francesca Harper. Its timeliness is indisputable, as is its message, which Harper’s piece delivers calmly but with the force of truth.
Performed by the exceptional Tatiana Melendez and Miguel Solano, both in their fourth season with the company, System is “about” three related journeys. First, that of Mildred and Richard Loving, who were married in Virginia, then arrested and subsequently convicted in 1958 for violating Virginia’s 1924 “Racial Integrity Act” (which forbade interracial marriage). The case eventually made its way to the United States Supreme Court, and in a landmark 1967 decision (Loving v. Virginia) the unanimous court overturned their conviction. The piece is also about the “system,” the laws and procedures that existed to condemn and prosecute the Lovings in the first place, and the journey that took so long for it to be resolved. And finally, it’s about American society’s journey, a continuing one, of coming to terms with and eradicating race-based injustice.
Harper’s piece covers all three journeys successfully, and does so without directly emphasizing any of them. That is, it makes its point simply by illustrating the Lovings’ relationship as a series of physical interactions that display the beauty of their marital state as a matter of fact and indisputable, accompanied by Bach’s gentle “Air on a G String,” contemporary news reports, and, most significantly, interviews with the Lovings that emphasize how bewildered they were that the simple fact that they loved each other created such a … journey. Melendez and Solano bring the Lovings’ relationship to life; the dance’s accompanying news reports and interviews place it in a greater context.
The dance isn’t an angry polemic or crusade for justice, and doesn’t celebrate or gloat. It just states facts that inherently provoke a viewer’s internal emotional response. It simply is what it is: a snapshot of American history. Given the continuing societal journey and ebb and flow of Supreme Court decisions, and the reality that history tends to repeat itself, it’s one of many injustices that must not be forgotten.