Complexions Contemporary Ballet
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
November 16, 2021
Program A: Snatched Back from the Edges (world premiere), Love Rocks
Complexions Contemporary Ballet began its two week season at the Joyce Tuesday night with a world premiere and a repeat of a dance that premiered during its Joyce engagement last year. Both were choreographed by Co-Artistic Director Dwight Rhoden. The new piece, Snatched Back from the Edges, is a noteworthy dance that generally manages to avoid the conceptual quagmire that befalls many dances that focus on issues brought to light because of, or exacerbated by, the pandemic. Love Rocks, to music by Lenny Kravitz, appeared somewhat better on second view than it did over a year ago.
I’ll first discuss the company and Rhoden’s choreographic style in general, and then address the two dances I saw this week, focusing on the premiere. However, regardless of what one might find by dissecting Rhoden’s choreography, Complexions is unquestionably an exhilarating company, populated with extraordinary dancers, and is a model for a company that emphasizes contemporary and balletic qualities without diminishing the significance of either.
I haven’t seen all of Rhoden’s choreographic creations by a longshot, but those I’ve seen emphasize speed and physicality, with frenetic stage activity, movement that ranges from fast to faster to explosive, and legs and torsos stretched from here to eternity.
However, what makes Rhoden’s movement quality distinctive isn’t just its speed; it’s that the speed rarely stops, and is abetted by the skillful way in which he populates the stage. One scene segues seamlessly into the next (if the narrative abruptly slows or stops, however briefly, it’s intentional and to make a point). At times – well, frequently — Rhoden has his dancers navigate the stage so fast and stretch their bodies so far (e.g., into hyper-stretched arabesques) that the movement velocity pulls the dancer off center, but it appears to me that this is intentional too, or at least not as much of a concern: Rhoden seems willing to sacrifice finesse for increased speed both in getting the dancers to their places for any given choreographic action, and in the execution of the movement combinations themselves. There’s no right or wrong here; for Rhoden’s choreography it works.
And something is always going on in visually interesting ways. Rhoden repeatedly visually slices and dices the stage and the dancers who populate it (who move in and out of a given dance segment like basketball substitutions) into a variety of fluid components so that nothing looks the same even if the choreography is basically similar from one view to another. The result is a “layering” quality that builds intensity, and which diminishes the impact of repetitive movement and the thrillingly executed but omnipresent lifts and thrusts. [Another consequence of his style is that it makes providing details of his choreography in a review virtually impossible, since everything moves so quickly.]
All this being said, and although most of the time his style is carried off well by his superb group of dancers, too often Rhoden’s choreography slavishly follows the music he’s selected (except, obviously, where the “music” is spoken words or where there is intentional silence), giving every beat an accompanying movement. With music sources heavy on beat and speed, effectively one quality continuously feeds the other, which tends to create in the viewer a sense of visual fatigue. And as I’ve observed previously, aside from possibly getting dizzy watching the dancers percolate, one doesn’t get emotionally involved with Rhoden’s choreography: it’s more a dance concert that one goes to watch rather than dance theater that might be cathartic. But in the overall scheme of things, these are relatively minor criticisms. That Rhoden’s choreography is exciting to watch, with or without an accompanying meaning or purpose, is far more significant.
Both pieces in Program A exemplify Rhoden’s basic choreographic style and yield similar visual and emotional results.
Reportedly, Snatched Back from the Edges, part of which was initially presented as a film with the title “Black is Beautiful,” was conceived and created during the height of the pandemic. Not having seen that film, I can’t say how the piece has been modified as presented here, but it seems clear that in certain respects it has been. At least in this format, the piece, according to the program note, is “meant to be a chronicle of the indelible human spirit, in the eye of a storm.” That’s a fair summary of what Snatched Back from the Edges ultimately accomplishes.
The program note also specifies that the pandemic included “[t]he additional challenges of gun violence, racial inequity, and social struggles at the forefront of our daily lives.” While the dance obviously concerns itself with general issues (particularly racial inequity and social struggles), I saw little in the dance relating to specific incidents or grievances. In this case that’s a positive. Too often dances with similar themes turn into obvious polemics. Rather, 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. So the choreography to “Fear” (spoken word by Terrell Lewis) effectively visualizes exactly that, and “Work it Out” (by Tye Tribbett), one of the dance’s best segments, is a choreographic combination of frustration and optimism. Even where one of his selected pieces of music appears to sanction violence – “Satan, We’re Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down” (sung by Shirley Ceasar, known as “the first lady of Gospel”), which Rhoden here repurposes – the accompanying movement doesn’t visualize that literally. And although he references the opening stanzas of “My Country Tis of Thee” with obvious contempt, in a contemporary context that’s difficult to avoid.
But in the penultimate segment of the dance Rhoden briefly appears to focus on a clash between some sort of generalized western culture and the culture of those inspired to advocate change, and to me pushes things a step too far. Here, for a relatively long period of dance time, two dancers are featured dancing to music by Frederic Chopin (in a jazzed up arrangement by Jon Batiste). While this is happening (or at some point after it begins), a group of dancers appear stage left. One of them approaches the couple dancing to Chopin, and clearly pushes them away as if what the couple is doing is annoying and unacceptable. The purpose of this brief mini-scene seems to be to show that Chopin, no matter how jazzed up his music may be (and by logical extension western music in general}, just doesn’t fit anymore, or, worse, represents some sort of incompatibility with the change that the others are attempting to accomplish.
I’m probably reading more into this than I (or anyone) should, but as presented it’s disturbing and unnecessary. It may well be that Rhoden is really condemning such action – the segment ends in sudden darkness (perhaps indicating that this exclusionary attitude is destructive), and then resumes with the dance’s final segment that posits a more idealized future (effectively ‘snatching it back” from the precipitous edge of the demanded culture compliance), but if that’s the case, the message isn’t being clearly delivered. [I’m aware that the phrase “snatched back from the edges” may have a particular meaning in the African-American community, but here the phrase has a broader significance.]
Regardless, and except for that momentary scene, Snatched Back from the Edges is a valuable addition to the panoply of post-pandemic dances that deal primarily with racial injustice. The entire company excelled, but I was particularly impressed by veterans Jillian Davis and Jarrett Reimers, who danced the Chopin duet referenced above exquisitely (among other significant contributions to the piece), the sparkplug that is Thomas Dilley, Larissa Gerszke, whose feverish serenity is a counterpoint to Davis, and the solidly reliable and at times electrifying Brandon Gray. Reimers has been with the company for two years, but I don’t recall seeing him previously, and I think I would have noticed. In addition to executing well in general, he’s tall enough to credibly partner Davis (and to match her in stage domination). I’d say he’s one to watch, but it’s difficult not to.
On first view last year, I appreciated Love Rocks although I felt it didn’t really hit its stride until the second half of the ballet. That’s still my evaluation, but it looks somewhat better overall on second view. The dances look less like music videos to me even though I still can’t see any uniform theme (beyond being choreography to individual songs by Lenny Kravitz); but, like Snatched Back from the Edges, Love Rocks is more significant in its entirety than analyzed piecemeal. The fact that it builds in intensity midway until it ends, and that it appears then to suggest a general theme (“we’re here to love each other”) is commendable.
In addition to those dancers mentioned above, Love Rocks featured (at least based on those I think I was able to identify – see below for an explanation) Simon Plant, Vincenzo di Primo, Tim Stickney, Candy Tong, Aiden Wolf, and Emma Brandson (who deserves particular recognition for her excellent work as a last-minute replacement for the injured Tatiana Melendez).
Both dances included dramatic lighting design by Michael Korsch, which successfully amplified Rhoden’s choreographed excitement without interfering with it.
Two final “housekeeping” comments: pet peeves that have nothing to do with the quality of what’s presented on stage. It is extremely annoying when the program doesn’t list the music it uses in the order presented. To those as to whom the musical selections may be unfamiliar, not listing them in order makes it very difficult if not impossible to identify what’s being played when. It may be that the choreographer’s intent is to have the music treated as an entirety rather than as individual components, but that would still be the case even if the music had been listed in the order played. Moreover, it appeared to me that not all the music that comprised the score for Snatched Back from the Edges was included in the credits, in performance order or not. Especially here, where the emotional and physical emphasis in the music and the choreography mirror each other, that’s not acceptable. Finally on this issue, if one reason for not listing the accompanying music in the order presented is to allow the choreographer to shuffle the order for whatever reason, after nearly two years the order of music in Love Rocks, at least in its current form, should be cemented.
Similarly, it’s unfortunate that dancers, featured or not, are not identified in the program at all (both dances here indicate that they’re performed by “The Company”). While it’s understandable that dancers may be considered cogs in a greater machine and that where necessary one can be substituted for another without having to create a program insert or require a cast change announcement, dancers are not automatons robotically executing choreography: they’re individuals who deserve, at the very least, to be credited. [My inability to reference the additional dancers who comprised the cast of the two dances in Program A reflects this; I can’t identify them if I don’t know who they are.] This might require separating pieces into component parts in the program, but effectively that’s what happens in Love Rocks, and the fact that certain segments from Snatched Back from the Edges are excised and presented individually in Program B, with the featured dancers identified, indicates that this is not only doable, but has already been done.
Be that as it may, and as I’ve mentioned previously, Complexions is a poster child for dance diversity, with extraordinary dancers regardless of race, ethnicity, or height – all that matters is talent and the capability to execute Rhoden’s choreography. This is a fact that cannot be overemphasized, and it contributes mightily to the company’s success and to the message it sends above and beyond the choreography itself.
Complexions Contemporary Ballet’s engagement at the Joyce continues through November 28th, and features two programs (as well as a gala that took place last Thursday): Love Rocks appears on both programs; Snatched from the Edges is performed in Program A, and excerpts from it are included in Program B. Regardless of the program, this is a “must see” company; if you hurry, you might still find an available ticket.