Complexions Contemporary Ballet
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

January 24, 2020
Program A: Bach 25, Love Rocks (world premiere)

Jerry Hochman

In a nutshell, if you went to a performance by Complexions Contemporary Ballet at the Joyce Theater last week you saw a fine new ballet, but you didn’t really see anything new.

My perspective is as a relative newbie – I first saw the company at its Joyce season last year, and I was impressed both with the company dancers and with Dwight Rhoden’s choreography. This year’s program, the first of two (as well as specially-selected matinee programs) during its two week season, included a world premiere: Love Rocks, which uses as its score songs by rock star Lenny Kravitz. Nothing wrong with that. On the contrary, choreographing to a well-known vocal artist’s singing / songwriting oeuvre is as much dance bread and butter as choreographing to songs without words.

Complexions Contemporary Ballet
in Dwight Rhoden’s “Bach 25”
Photo by Sharen Bradford

The program’s opening piece, which I saw on last year’s program, was Rhoden’s Bach 25, which received another scintillating, albeit relatively choreographically one-dimensional, performance on Friday. There’s no need to revisit that dance here. But Rhoden’s choreographic style bears reemphasis. At least based on those dances of his that I’ve seen (an admittedly small subset of Rhoden’s creations), his movement quality emphasizes physicality and speed, but is as eclectic looking as the company. It’s virtually all action all the time, which, with somewhat repetitious-looking choreography, could grow tiresome were it not for the company’s extraordinarily capable dancers.

Complexions Contemporary Ballet
in Dwight Rhoden’s “Love Rocks”
Photo by Justin Chao

This eclectic quality is more than skin deep. Rhoden has assembled a company in which most of his dancers stand out from each other physically: that is, by size and performance attitude. To an unusual extent, they’re individual stage characters, not interchangeable parts. Consequently, Rhoden’s movement quality gives the appearance of greater variability and complexity than the choreography itself would lead one to expect. That’s a good thing.

Complexions Contemporary Ballet
in Dwight Rhoden’s “Love Rocks”
Photo by Justin Chao

That having been said, however, there can be a sense of sameness to Rhoden’s feverish choreography, which as a consequence can make a piece appear similar to the one that preceded it. That is what happened, at least in my eyes, as Love Rocks began. The first Kravitz songs (except for the initial group presentation, which is a foreshadowing of the staging of the closing song) felt like more of Bach 25, except to contemporary rock music rather than its 18th Century rock equivalent. I saw lots of calculated but still frenzied motion that could have been lifted with only slight modifications from the evening’s first piece. At times, even the dance’s lighting (designed by Michael Korsch, who also designed the lighting for Bach 25) looked similar.

(l-r) Daniela O’Neil, Jillian Davis,
Larissa Gerszke
and members of the Company
in Dwight Rhoden’s “Love Rocks”
Photo by Justin Chao

It’s not critical for a dance choreographed to a series of songs by a particular vocal artist to be linked by a certain theme, whether that be some narrative, message, or just a visual connection. Not having such a linkage isn’t fatal, but it runs the risk of looking like a series of music videos, which, aside from its surface similarity to its predecessor on the program, is what I initially thought of Love Rocks. And the sense that the performance / song segments could have been reshuffled in any order, which was also an initial impression, was emphasized by the program listing of the piece’s nine Kravitz songs as “not in performance order” (it wasn’t in alphabetical order or sequential by release date either), leading to an inference that the final presentation may have been relatively last minute.

(l-r) Craig Dionne, Larissa Gerszke,
and Tim Stickney
in Dwight Rhoden’s “Love Rocks”
Photo by Justin Chao

But around halfway through Love Rocks, with the choreography to the song “Fly Away,” the ballet improved markedly, with more visual variety and a sense of unity held together by some relationship to “love” on an individual and societal level. It’s a flimsy theme and overused message, but it’s there. Thereafter – from Kravitz’s “Calling All Angels” [for those generationally impaired, that’s not “Trouble in Paradise” by The Crests, which begins with “Calling All Angels, Calling All Angels…”] through “Riding on the Wings of My Lord” and “It’s Enough,” culminating in the vocally and choreographically heartfelt “Here’s to Love,” a paean to “we’re in this together; let’s all love each other” – the dance began to soar. Seen as upbeat, hopeful, and unified rather than just hyperactive, Love Rocks eventually works. It’s not in the same league as Rhoden’s Star Dust, but it allows the audience to leave the theater on a high.

(l-r) Daniela O’Neil, Jared Brunson,
and Brandon Gray
in Dwight Rhoden’s “Love Rocks”
Photo by Justin Chao

Love Rocks involves the entire eighteen member company, and singling out any individual dancers doesn’t seem appropriate. But I’ll do it anyway, since certain song / dances included featured dancers. One who makes a dramatic impression just by stepping onto the stage is Jillian Davis. In addition to appearing taller (and perhaps leaner) than any other female dancer, and necessarily imposing, she also dances with ferocity and impeccable technique. One of the characteristics of Rhoden’s choreography is leg extensions that seem to permeate every moment when the dancers aren’t moving from point A to point B and sometimes when they are. All the company dancers have impressive ballet credentials, and all deliver this balletic image admirably. But Davis takes leg extensions to new heights. Literally. When she’s onstage, one can see no one else: she’s that dominating. But she’s also very angular-looking, a quality that’s emphasized when she’s a segment’s featured dancer. To me, in this context, this only adds to Davis’s character.

Tatiana Melendez and Simon Plant
in Dwight Rhoden’s “Bach 25”
Photo by Sharen Bradford

On the other side of the spectrum, and not looking at all angular, Tatiana Melendez is a tiny bundle of energy who also can’t be ignored because she’s such fun to watch. Larissa Gerszke provided the piece with a sense of musicality that tempered the surrounding effervescence, as did Daniela O’Neil, who also contributed a sense of energized serenity. You had to be there. Among the men, explosive Tim Stickney was, again, extraordinarily compelling – another dancer who dominates the stage by the sheer power of his stage presence and personality. The other members of the company: Eriko Sugimura, Candy Tong, Jared Brunson, Thomas Dilley, Vincenzo de Primo, Craig Dionne, Brandon Grey, Maxfield Haynes, Khayr Fajri Muhammad, Simon Plant, and Miguel Solano also excelled.

In the course of my review last year, I noted that Complexions Contemporary Ballet may be the poster child for choreography that adapts to, even requires, multiple dimensions of diversity. This remains true. But the word “complexions” includes within it the root “complex.” As critical as diversity is to Complexion’s success, greater choreographic and programming complexity is critical as well. It may well be that this year’s Program B, which I was unable to see, sufficiently provided this ingredient. Regardless, I look forward to seeing Complexions’ future programs, and to a more varied program. But I must emphasize that more varied programming or not, any Complexions program is exciting by definition, and will leave its audience percolating with pleasure.