Complexions Contemporary Ballet
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

November 15 and 21, 2023
Ballad Unto… (excerpt), Love Fear Loss (excerpt), Elegy, The Dreamer, Regardless (world premiere), For Crying Out Loud (world premiere)

Jerry Hochman

Complexions Contemporary Ballet returned to the Joyce Theater last week for its annual two-week engagement. Although I had concerns about some of the pieces presented, overall the engagement, and particularly seeing the company’s stellar group of dancers, was a cause for thanksgiving.

There were supposed to have been two relatively distinct programs spread over the two-week period, but as a consequence of reported injuries, one program (what was to be Program A) had to be modified, and the other (Program B) was significantly changed, and several of the dances in Program A were repeated. So I’ll lump both programs I attended together for purposes of this review, particularly since a second view of two of the pieces caused me to alter my initial impression.

Complexions Contemporary Ballet
in Dwight Rhoden’s “For Crying Out Loud”
Photo by Taylor Craft

Generally, these performances produced the anticipated Complexions “brand,” as I described it in my review of their performance at the Joyce last year. This brand, which audiences attending a Complexions performance expect to see, incudes furiously paced choreography that, while still primarily ballet, expands the idea of what ballet looks like without butchering its language, as well as its eclectic company of dancers of the highest artistic and physical caliber. While Complexions may not have originated this style or first exploited the benefits of an eclectic cast, over its 29 years it has become, for good reason, synonymous with it.

That was the case this year as well. But as was also the case last year, the pieces that were most interesting were those that were not exactly within the parameters of that same stereotypical brand.

By far the most unusual piece on the programs, and the one that prompted my most significant opinion change on second view, was Jenn Freeman’s Regardless. I still have no idea what the title means or is intended to refer to, but after initially strongly disliking the piece, on second view I think I understand what Freeman is trying to do.

Complexions Contemporary Ballet
in Jenn Freeman’s “Regardless”
Photo by Taylor Craft

On first view (the November 15 program), Freeman’s dance (the program references an Associate Choreographer as well: Lily Sheppard) seemed to have no central focus. To its largely percussive score by Price McGuffey, a multi-disciplinary percussionist based in NYC who has collaborated with Freeman previously, the opening segment and several segments thereafter left the impression that it was all about the percussion, about every motion being on the beat, and about violence and the fear of it, even if I couldn’t tell what the violence was supposed to have been about.

At the dance’s outset, a single cone of light surrounds and seems to imprison the ensemble. Then one of them, Christian Burse, who is the piece’s main character, somehow emerges (or is permitted to emerge) from the group, moves forward, and almost immediately one hears rat-a-tat-tat percussion that sounds like gunshots fired at Burse from somewhere. Concurrently, Burse reacts as if she’d been hit by these “sound bullets.” That’s an extremely strong opening, but after that the dance’s imagery seemed largely disconnected until the equally strong but somewhat puzzling conclusion.

Christian Burse (front) and Complexions Contemporary Ballet
in Jenn Freeman’s “Regardless”
Photo by Taylor Craft

On second view (the November 21 program) I paid attention to other factors in addition to the choreography – the lighting (by Michael Korsch), some eerie-sounding music that wasn’t percussive, and body postures (all of which I saw and noted initially but couldn’t attribute to anything in particular beyond that overall sense of violence. As a result, and as a general benefit from viewing a piece more than once, I saw Regardless as far more impressive than I’d initially thought.

Also, while in the initial program McGuffey was stationed on stage (mid audience-right), on this second view I don’t recall seeing him on stage at all either because the piece wasn’t supposed to have been performed on that date and he wasn’t available, or because I just ignored his presence. Since I’d initially considered McGuffey’s stage appearance, together with what appeared to be a full drum set, to be a pointless distraction, his absence from the stage the second time was an overall improvement. [At that initial performance, McGuffey didn’t do much more than sit there with a stone-solid stoic expression (most of the score was pre-recorded). This leads to the possibility that the dance’s title is simply a reference to the dancers doing whatever they do and the piece saying whatever it says regardless of McGuffey’s presence.]

Complexions Contemporary Ballet
in Jenn Freeman’s “Regardless”
Photo by Taylor Craft

On this second bite I noticed that the remaining six dancers react to those opening “gunshot” sounds also – not as if they’d been hit directly, like Burse, but as if they were being assaulted in different ways with each “shot.” And I recognized that what I’d recalled as fairly constant percussion actually moderated considerably at various points throughout the piece, allowing Regardless to build some sort of distinctive character, especially via the rumbling, mildly echoey, and extra-terrestrial-like sounds, and not be overwhelmed by the percussion.

Based on what followed, what the ensemble was reacting to wasn’t simply to some random violence; it was to an attack by a dominating external force. Strange-sounding as it may appear (and it does), I ultimately landed on the possibility [wait for it….] that Regardless was a sort of reimagining of Close Encounters of the Third Kind where the encounter is with decidedly not benign invaders. [I tend to overthink, just a little.]

Complexions Contemporary Ballet
in Jenn Freeman’s “Regardless”
Photo by Taylor Craft

Whether that’s a “correct” interpretation, whatever “correct” may mean, isn’t nearly as significant as that there’s an interpretation at all, since it seemed clear even at the initial performance that Regardless wasn’t some abstract way of seeing the music; there had to have been some point hidden in the actual movement on stage that initially I was unable to decipher. So finding a context (not a box; a context) is helpful, even if certain moments aren’t so neatly explainable.

As I saw the dance evolve on second view, the group, individually and collectively, registers fear that is greater than simple anxiety. There are brief examples of dancers seeming to attempt to persevere against the enveloping, controlling force, and one or more occasionally falling to the floor as if dead. At one point one who had fallen, looking dead, is ignored, and his body walked over, by others regardless of his being in their way. [Maybe that’s where the title came from….]

Christian Burse
in Jenn Freeman’s “Regardless”
Photo by Taylor Craft

Going into the balance of the dance in detail is not necessary; suffice it to say that in the course of the piece multiple beams of light had been directed to various locations to illuminate various stage action. Nothing new there. But in the final scene, the “original” single cone of light dominates as it did initially, and the ensemble is being pulled upward toward that light source. That is, while their bodies are on the stage floor (tilted toward the audience, so their struggling faces could be seen) each raises a single arm reaching out toward that light source as if being pulled by it (rather than to protect themselves from it, or to seek it out). After the arms are released, each then raises his or her left leg, as if it too was being involuntarily pulled in the direction of the light source. At some point just before, during, or after, the color of the light cone changes to a pinkish or purplish hue, seemingly singling out something or changing instructions, then, as I recall, returning to its natural color. Burse, who appears to have been the dance’s equivalent of the “chosen one,” at some point falls to the floor (I don’t recall whether this was during or after the involuntary arm/ leg stretches by the others, who are now prone on the stage floor either dead or otherwise rendered immobile), and, with agony etched on her face, is seen being inexorably pulled upward by her outstretched leg toward the light source as the curtain comes down.

It certainly seems as if, in the end, the “chosen” dancer is, against her will, being pulled by, controlled by, abductive by, and/ or selected by, some outside force for special treatment – for some unusually fear-inducing close encounter.

I recognize that this “close encounter” may be, and probably should be, considered as a metaphor for something beyond some science fiction space nightmare. What I’ve described could represent the pull of a self-destructive idea, a realization that the central character has previously resisted, or the receipt of information that changes the chosen one’s thoughts about basic things relating to her life. Or, overthinking again, it could be resisting the call of some death angel. The point, again, is that now I saw a continuing expression that a viewer (i.e., me) can understand and that makes sense. With this second exposure, I can see how interestingly Freeman puts all this together in a highly evolving and cinematic way, rather than as a collection of unrelated strangeness.

Regardless of whether anyone else’s opinion evolved the same way (as I’ve frequently written, I’m a little slow), or cared about anything beyond the action they see on stage, I now see that Regardless is a very fine and highly original dance, and I look forward to the opportunity to see it again – and maybe see additional aspects of the piece that I might have twice missed.

Burse and the other six dancers in the piece (Jillian Davis, Miguel Solano, Alex Haquia, Lucy Stewart, Joe Gonzalez, and Vincenzo Di Primo) excelled, with Burse communicating an irresistible force of her own.

Vincenzo Di Primo
in Dwight Rhoden’s “For Crying Out Loud”
Photo By Taylor Craft

The other world premiere, Rhoden’s For Crying Out Loud, also looked better to me on second view – but without resulting in any similar epiphany.

Complexions Contemporary Ballet
in Dwight Rhoden’s
“For Crying Out Loud”
Photo by Taylor Craft

For Crying Out Loud is choreographed to ten pieces by U2 primarily written and sung by Bono. I’m not as familiar with U2 as I should be, although I certainly know of them (it’s a generation thing; nothing to do with performance quality), so much, though not all, of the music was new to me. And I must admit that I considered the opportunity to clearly hear and understand lyrics to be a welcome relief from similar contemporary music/ dance syntheses, as was the opportunity to not hear it overwhelmed by walls of electronically amplified sound.

Though the music was relatively new to me, the choreography wasn’t. For Crying Out Loud is Complexions’ “brand.” It is primarily furiously non-stop movement, with overbaked ballet movement (e.g., arabesques that sail to the sky … almost all the time), accompanied by split-second removal or insertion of a new group of dancers to and from the wings before the previous stage focus (a solo, duet, or small group) had any opportunity to establish a sense of whether the pair (or other isolated grouping) was saying something particular to them or merely providing a convenient, albeit brief, resting point for other members of the ensemble.

Jillian Davis
and (l-r) Angelo De Serra and Alex Haquia
in Dwight Rhoden’s
“For Crying Out Loud”
Photo by Taylor Craft

Furious speed (like persistent pounding percussion) tends to overwhelm everything else, but on second view and greater familiarity I did see that several segments were more moderately paced than others, even though in comparison they’re more quickly forgotten. But the overall sense I had was still that the movement on stage, with rare exceptions, had little to do with what the lyrics were saying or made any such connection so fleetingly that it was easily overlooked. For instance, at the conclusion of the first song, “Where the Streets Have No Name,” the ensemble looks around as if trying to get their bearings and/or find something to connect with. Beyond a general sense of urban anonymity, that’s it. And In “Two Hearts Beat as One,” for another example, I saw many images of isolated pairings, but that’s all they were – briefly intersecting bodies. I saw nothing that could remotely be considered two hearts beating as one.

Nevertheless, the piece is not without highlights: in certain individual segments (“In Every Breaking Wave,” With Or Without You” and “Until the End of the World”), and in certain dancers’ performances (particularly Davis in “In Every Breaking Wave”; Kobe Atwood Courtney, who seems always ready to erupt on a moment’s notice; Di Primo, who, to the extent there was an anchor in the piece was that anchor – not only as a central force in the dance as a whole, but literally at the conclusion of “In Every Braking Wave,” when, his feet planted on stage, he holds Chloe Duryea by one arm and swirls her around and around in an off-angle position (similar to images of dancing pairs in Olympic Ice Skating);  Gonzalez whenever he appeared in anything; and Duryea, who was primarily Di Primo’s partner and enlivened every scene in which she appeared.

Chloe Duryea
in Dwight Rhoden’s
“For Crying Out Loud”
Photo by Taylor Craft

Even though I didn’t see these connections to the song lyrics that I wanted to see, the piece overall is undeniably a fine example of Rhoden’s choreographic style, which skillfully exploits and enlarges the scope of his dancers’ abilities – to the nth degree. For Crying Out Loud (a great title that summarizes most of the sense of Bono’s songs, but also somewhat distances the piece from the songs’ lyrics, as the dance itself does) fits neatly together with other ballets that Rhoden has created to an assortment of one singer’s (or band’s) music: better than some; not as good as others.

Justin Peck’s The Dreamers was choreographed in 2016 to music by Bohuslav Martinu (The Adagio (II) movement from Piano Quartet No. 2, H 298), a Czech composer of modern classical music. I saw it at its New York City Ballet world premiere in 2016. In my subsequent review I observed that the piece is tight and superbly crafted but is relatively inconsequential – and the “dream” aspect of it (midway through the piece, the couple fall to the floor, and then one rises and dances in the other’s dream, after which their positions are reversed) is strained. The original “Fall Fashion Gala” costumes here have been replaced by simpler, but equally effective (and not at all distracting) costumes by Reid and Harriet.

(l-r) Candy Tong and Lucy Stewart
in Dwight Rhoden’s
“For Crying Out Loud”
Photo by Taylor Craft

This performance, the Company premiere, is consistent with my observations six years earlier. Compared to some of the other program pieces, it’s far more crisp and clean-looking (some of the “brand” choreography can come across as sloppy; that’s not a criticism – that’s the style that Rhoden apparently prefers, and in company context it’s not so much sloppy as reflecting a different focus of importance). April Watson and Gonzalez delivered a very fine performance; it flowed smooth as silk, even with the surprising (and, as a result, more impactful) overhead lifts, which is the way it’s supposed to be.

Gonzales was an equally effective partner in the excerpt from Ricardo Amarante’s Love Fear Loss.

The engagement was to have included the Company premiere of the full piece (and perhaps did at the Gala opening the previous night), but at the performance on the 15th injuries prevented presenting the first and last components of the dance (“Love”; “Loss”) as well as the cast originally scheduled for “Fear” for that date. But although one can’t get a sufficient impression from it that would carry-over to the full piece, based on “Fear” the dance looks intriguing.

Candy Tong and Joe Gonzalez in “Fear”
from Ricardo Amarante’s “Love Fear Loss”
Photo Courtesy of Complexions Contemporary Ballet

At first blush it’s a rather strange relationship dance; the pair (Candy Tong and Gonzales) are involved with each other, but quickly things turn sour – as usual in such dances, for no particular discernible reason. One or the other exhibits a desire to escape, then returns, then the other, then returns, and back and forth ultimately leading to the pair going their separate ways. Maybe. It’s obvious from the choreography here, and from the pairs’ execution of it, that the couple isn’t so much leaving each other as fearing to commit to each other.

What takes this excerpt, and possibly would have taken the dance as a whole, outside the boundaries of the ordinary is its score. The program doesn’t distinguish between the music for each of the three segments, but the score is attributed to Edith Piaf, Charles Dumont, and Jacques Brel. [I’m not familiar with Dumont, but he, like Piaf and Brel, is a French-language composer (Brel was Belgian) who frequently wrote songs for and collaborated with Piaf.]

Candy Tong and Joe Gonzalez in “Fear”
from Ricardo Amarante’s “Love Fear Loss”
Photo by Taylor Craft

The songs, reduced to solo piano (no vocals) and played live by Brian Wong with discernable passion, infuse the dance with significance over and above the choreography, and lend the piece another level of credibility. The songs aren’t identified in the program. It’s been a long time, but I was able to recognize melodies from two of the songs: Piaf’s signature song, “La Vie en Rose” (colloquially, “life through rose-colored glasses”) – I’m not 100% certain, but I could hear in my mind Piaf singing the line “je vois la vie en rose,” and Tong’s costume, at least from my point of view, was rose-colored; and Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas” (“Don’t leave me”) – I’m 100% sure. Both fit “Fear” like a glove. [An aside (another one): I saw “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” a musical review (properly embellished with emotion), in its original Greenwich Village incarnation, and I remember moments of it to this day.]

The dance was very well executed. Indeed, this was the finest performance I’ve seen from Tong. And as was the case with The Dreamers, Gonzalez was her highly capable and effective partner.

Jillian Davis in Dwight Rhoden’s “Ballad Unto…”
Photo by Steven Pisano

Elegy, a 2020 piece choreographed by Rhoden to Beethoven (an excerpt from his “Moonlight Sonata”) was performed on the 21st by Jillian Davis. The piece itself is as billed: a requiem for deceased person (Rhoden dedicated the piece “in loving memory” of two women identified in the program). It doesn’t look like any elegy I’ve previously seen, and I can’t quite determine why it was choreographed as angularly, and as angrily, as it appears to have been – although it’s possible that part of that is Davis’s almost natural angularity. That having been said, I’m sure Rhoden wouldn’t have let her dance it if her performance was in any way antithetical to his intent.

Davis, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned in previous Complexions reviews, is a distinctive and extraordinary dancer, and is used by the company to the advantage of both. Here she is a dominating presence (as she always is), filling the stage even though she’s the only one occupying it. That I found the movement qualities to be angular and angry-looking rather than sadly liquid isn’t a defect – it’s just different. Davis’s performance here, as is the case with every other piece in which she appears, is top notch; no one else can do what she’s able to do, and it’s not just her height.

Complexions Contemporary Ballet
in Dwight Rhoden’s “Ballad Unto…”
Photo by Steven Pisano

Finally, both evenings opened with Rhoden’s Ballad Unto…” In publicity materials there was no mention that this was to be an excerpt, but the program clearly indicates that it is (it’s the dance’s second movement). Choreographed in 2015 to J.S. Bach’s Partita #2 in D Minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1004 : Chaconne (“Ciaccona,” the composition’s fifth movement), the dancers illustrate the complexity of Rhoden’s choreography, and as presented the piece shows considerable, and welcome, movement variety as well as stagecraft that’s inherently interesting, but it ends abruptly – with the men’s arms wrapped from behind around each woman’s waist as if something is about to happen next, but the audience doesn’t know what that is. It was very well-executed, as Complexions dances always are, but without seeing the piece in its entirety I can say nothing more.

Complexions is a wonderful company, and obviously has a devoted following. I’m sure it will return – and, despite whatever criticisms I’ve expressed here, it’s well worth seeing. Hopefully, when that happens, injuries won’t prevent them from presenting the programs as planned.