Complexions Contemporary Ballet
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
February 22, 2019: Program A – Bach 25; Star Dust
February 26, 2019: Program B – From Then To Now; Woke (world premiere)
Unlike other dance companies I’ve recently reviewed that seem to have emerged from nowhere and were previously unknown to me, I’ve been well aware of Complexions Contemporary Ballet, but for various reasons have been unable to see their programs. This season’s two-week, two-program engagement at the Joyce Theater in celebration of the company’s 25th Anniversary was a great way to get acquainted.
A few observations must be emphasized at the outset: First, the Complexions dancers are an extraordinarily talented group, as well as unusually eclectic-looking one, with ballet backgrounds being both extensive and significant. Their execution of co-Artistic Director Dwight Rhoden’s choreography provides, on its own, indelible memories. Second, Rhoden’s Star Dust is equally extraordinary. This celebration of, and tribute to, David Bowie, which is concurrently a celebration of the company and its dancers, is breathtaking in its appropriate irreverence and indisputably glorious entertainment value. For what it is rather than what it’s not (which I’ll explain below), it’s one of the finest of contemporary ballet. And third, Complexions provides one of the best examples I’ve seen –maybe the best I’ve seen – of seamlessly amalgamating contemporary dance with ballet, without resorting to the movement curiosities that plague other companies that attempt to do the same. Although the thrust of the steps and combinations is more weighted, more “into the ground” than stereotypical ballet, it’s still ballet.
But to me, not everything I saw worked. The two new dances on these programs, though consistent with Rhoden’s other work and a showcase for his dancers, are more one-dimensional expressions of generalized feeling. They’re not unsuccessful: these pieces have style, the dancers’ energy, and at least one of them accomplishes its intended purpose. They’re just not on the same level as Star Dust – but few dances could be.
Program A opened with the NYC premiere of Bach 25. As may be gleaned from its title, the piece, which premiered nearly a year ago in California, is a celebration of Complexions’ 25 years. To music by J.S. and C.P.E. Bach, the full company delivers the non-stop visual excitement that epitomizes Rhoden’s style.
To say that this style, in general, emphasizes physicality and speed is an understatement. If there was any doubt that dancers are superb athletes, the company’s dancers and Rhoden’s choreography end the discussion. And in the course of all this movement, Rhoden injects staging that, in most cases, is so variable that it visually compensates for any limitations in choreographic variety. Perhaps most significantly, Rhoden uses the individual characteristics of his eclectic group of dancers optimally. Jillian Davis, for example, appears on stage to be unusually tall and angular, but her always imposing presence coupled with her manifest technical ballet capability adds drama to anything she dances; while Tatiana Melendez appears on stage to be too compact, too tiny to be a significant presence, but when Rhoden’s choreography turns to her, she becomes the little ballerina that could. Something similar can be said about each of the Complexions dancers. It’s not that these ballet dancers couldn’t fit in with any company, but that, with the appropriate choreography, which Rhoden provides, their individual characteristics become both important and irrelevant – which is what Complexions has been demonstrating for its 25 years. Complexions may be the poster child for choreography that adapts to, even requires, multiple dimensions of diversity. The significance of this cannot be overstated.
And, strange as it may seem, as I grew more accustomed to Rhoden’s style, at certain points in time I saw flashes of Balanchine. Rhoden shuffles groups of dancers on and off stage and back on again, and each time the dancers appear to be racing to get in proper position for the next sequence. I found this awkward and almost laughable at first – and then it hit me that this is what groups of corps dancers frequently do in some Balanchine ballets. Similarly, at a certain point in the choreography in one of his pieces, Rhoden has one dancer (Melendez, as I recall) pull off a series of pique turns heading into the wings, and for another fleeting moment in my mind’s eye I saw the ballerina in red in Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements. The point is not that Rhoden is Balanchine, but that Rhoden’s choreography is both evolutionary and revolutionary, and well within a ballet context. The significance of this cannot be overstated either.
But the non-stop movement does have limits, one of them being an overall sense of sameness, notwithstanding individual moments and efforts by individual dancers, that amplifies choreographic idiosyncrasies. For instance, Rhoden relies too much on leg extensions. It’s not the execution, but the omnipresence. When in doubt, get that leg up, and then get it up higher. Similarly, the dance’s speed emphasizes the sheer physicality of that style: the impression being that every member of the company is working at full throttle all the time, which, although undeniably exciting to watch, can also be visually overwhelming. Rhoden skillfully attempts to camouflage this by dividing the stage into larger or smaller groups in a variety of ever changing combinations, but by doing so he’s also giving dancers a rest for a few minutes in the wings before returning to trade places with, and then provide a brief respite to, those then on stage (like a basketball team shuffling replacements in and out, except here it’s on a more regular basis). This effectively spreads the speed that’s constantly visible to the audience across the company, but to an audience unaccustomed to it, the constant speed can become a blur. [Which is a backhand way of explaining why I can’t describe more than a few individual moments from his pieces – they fly by too fast.] Lastly, aside from possibly getting dizzy watching the dancers percolate, one doesn’t get emotionally involved with Rhoden’s choreography – at least based on Bach 25 and the other pieces I saw. It’s more a dance concert that one goes to watch rather than dance theater that might be cathartic.
But then, Bach 25 is only doing what it sets out to do. The concise program note – “Reverence, Celebration, Moxie” – says it all. And in that sense, the piece is highly successful.
Woke, the world premiere dance that closed Program B, has greater movement variety, but, possibly because of its broader scope (the nearly as concise program note describes it as “A physical reaction to the daily news”), doesn’t carry any particular message beyond being just that. To me, Rhoden here missed an opportunity to make a statement.
Woke is choreographed to a set of compositions composed and sung by a variety of artists, the effect of which takes the piece from song to song in a well-structured way (from the fact that the world is confused, to the fact that bad things happen, to the fact that what the world needs is peace and caring). In the process, Rhoden takes the audience, visually, from a sole dancer spinning his wheels (almost literally) and going nowhere, soon joined by the full company doing essentially the same (visualizing “Ball of Confusion”), to what appear to be non-judgmental and non-conclusory physical responses to “Killing Spree,” and “Mona Lisa” (Lil Wayne’s song; NOT the song popularized by Nat King Cole), to “Peace, Piece” and “Pray.” [The other songs included in the score are “Doomed,” “I’ll Take Care of You,” and “Rank & File.”] Woke isn’t so much an awakening from the nightmare of the daily news as it is a series of dance scenes (corresponding to the individual songs) choreographed to the rhythm of the accompanying the music, without adding anything beyond seeing the music.
This is unlike, for example, Kyle Abraham’s recent ballet for New York City Ballet, The Runaway, in which accompanying music is also choreographed to (brilliantly), but the overall piece clearly – at least clearly to me – communicates something far more significant than the songs’ tempo and lyrics. Until Woke’s last moment, when the assembled dancers point toward the audience as if to say (though not very clearly) “what are you going to do about it?,” it’s all a visualization of the music. [Having said all this, I must note that I think Abraham was in the audience for this world premiere Woke performance. I may be mistaken, but if I’m right, he seemed thoroughly enthusiastic about what he saw on stage.]
Perhaps, as with Abraham’s piece, the more I get to see it, the more I’ll see the sort of statement within Woke that, given the topic, one would expect Rhoden to make. However, as it is, Woke seems to simply offer choreography that captures the pulse of the accompanying music. This is what Rhoden does very well, and which the compilations of excerpts from larger pieces that opened Program B, under the overall rubrick From Then to Now, exemplifies.
I usually don’t respond well to excerpts, because they may or may not be representative of the larger piece, and in any event lack whatever ebb and flow that seeing the entire dance would provide. But in this case, there’s an obvious and meritorious purpose to these excerpts – to provide a summary of Complexions over its history to date: in essence, Complexions’ Greatest Hits.
These excerpts (from Rise, Spill, Wonder – Full, Choke, Testament, and Star Dust), which cover a period from 1994 through 2016, are outrageously good, and. collaterally, demonstrate that Rhodens’s choreography may include more variety than the three complete dances presented lead me to believe. The excerpts have the unbridled energy that I saw in the engagement’s other pieces, but those that featured a solo or duet, while perhaps a blip in a longer piece, here were emphasized. And these individual performances – by Maxfield Haynes and Shanna Irwin (Spill), Brandon Gray (Wonder – Full), Thomas Dilley and Simon Plant (Choke), and Davis and Gray (Testament) – were outstanding. And Irwin in particular, without attempting to be a particular “character,” demonstrated a level of attack that I rarely see. Here, as well as in other program pieces, her every move cut like a knife.
Star Dust, which closed Program A, is billed as a “tribute to David Bowie.” It’s certainly that, but it’s far more.
There are many dances choreographed to songs written and/or sung by a particular contemporary artist (and many more that feature one or two such songs in a larger context). But I know of none on a dance company scale (as opposed to Broadway) as effective as a work of entertainment as this one. It’s not a particularly cerebral piece – no attempt is made to look beyond the music and the performing nature of artist and go behind the scenes, or to use the songs to craft a dance that attempts to visualize the time and place in which the song flourished (Pascal Rioult’s Fire in the Sky and Paul Taylor’s Changes come immediately to mind). But what Star Dust does do, as with Rhoden’s other pieces, is to reflect the music in the dance, and more than that, to celebrate Bowie within his own context. It’s theatrical the way the best concerts are theatrical, but it’s also ballet.
Star Dust doesn’t have the thematic continuity, besides the continuity of Bowie’s creations and persona, of, say, The Who’s Tommy. But that, as with not being cerebral, doesn’t matter – it just shows what Star Dust is not. What it clearly is is exactly what the program note indicates: A ballet that “takes an array of [Bowie’s] hits and lays a visual imprint, inspired by his unique personas and his restless invention – artistically to create a Rock Opera style production in his honor.”
Rhoden here curates nine Bowie songs from his extensive oeuvre (one of which, Warszawa, serves as a sort of introduction), and presents them as Bowie might have in concert, except it’s in the form of a ballet with one or more dancers, different for each song, mouthing Bowie’s lyrics and acting as Bowie stand-ins (or dance-ins). The music selected [Lazarus, Changes, Life on Mars, Space Oddity, 1984, Heroes (sung by Peter Gabriel), Modern Love, Rock and Roll Suicide, and Young Americans] perfectly illustrates the scope and variety of Bowie’s musical output (and it’s remarkable how many of these have become classics). Rhoden and the Complexions dancers take it from there, translating each song into a knockout series of full-blown distinctive productions that create the feel of a Bowie concert. Its outrageous gender-bending goes with the territory, and it had the audience in its pocket from the moment the theatrical-style starry lights (the fabulous lighting and sets were designed by Michael Korsch) penetrated the darkened theater when the piece began. And as it progressed, the knowing audience reacted as if they were at a live Bowie concert.
I cannot overemphasize how extraordinary Rhoden’s choreography and the dancers’ performances were. Acting a character is one thing; recreating one that so successfully evokes and amplifies Bowie’s various stage personae, is quite another. Each one (or group of them), for each song, delivered mind-blowing surrogate Bowies, beginning with Gray, and continuing with Craig Dionne, Jared Brunson, Haynes (who, according to the program, once danced with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, and it shows), Tim Stickney, and Plant – and at one point even Davis took a brief turn representing Bowie. And the company as a whole, which accompanied the Bowie stand-ins through nearly all of the song skits (like background dancers in a music video or concert, though they can hardly be considered “background”) lent extraordinary character and energy of their own, distinctive for each song. Aside from those already mentioned, they include Larissa Gerszke, Daniela O’Neil, Miguel Solano, Eriko Sugimara, and Candy Tong.
Among the small group of contemporary ballets that I could never tire of seeing, I’ve now added Star Dust. And according to the program, Star Dust is intended to be the first installment of a full evening-length ballet tribute to Bowie. I suggest keeping abreast of the company’s schedule to ascertain if and when such an expanded evening-length work is completed, and the dates and times its performances are scheduled: tickets for will likely go faster than … for a Bowie concert.