Dance Review: Complexions Contemporary Ballet — Creating Vivid Memories
By Charles Giuliano
This enormously talented company delivered a total assault on the senses at Jacob’s Pillow.
In 1994 Complexions Contemporary Ballet was co-founded and co-directed by choreographer Dwight Rhoden and master performer-teacher Desmond Richardson, both former members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. At the time they formed a personal and artistic partnership, Rhoden was an emerging choreographer while Richardson was renowned as the first African American principal dancer of American Ballet Theatre. He had been acclaimed by the New York Times as one of the greatest dancers of his time.
Since then Rhoden has created some 80 works for the company as well as for other leading companies. Initially, they featured African American dancers, but evolved to welcome equity, inclusion, and diversity a generation before that became de rigueur for the arts.
The name “Complexions” reflects the skin tones of the company. After the total assault on the senses the company delivered at Jacob’s Pillow, another identifying term might be “thrust.”
Although the company has toured globally, including major European festivals, this was their first appearance at the renowned Jacob’s Pillow. Based on tumultuous applause that followed the performance, it is likely that further invitations will follow.
It hasn’t been easy. The company has had scant foundation support and has endured harsh criticism. Brian Seibert reported in the New York Times (November 30, 2022) that “When I attended Complexions Contemporary Ballet at the Joyce Theater on Tuesday, more than a decade had passed since I had last seen the company. I found little evidence of change, which wasn’t what I had hoped.
“The dancers, though new since 2011, were like their predecessors: toned exemplars of technique, stretching without strain as far as bodies can stretch. The choreography was also as before: shapeless, empty, often inane. Not a surprise, but still disappointing.”
The program came in two parts. At the start there were five shorts pieces that included excerpts from longer works and vignettes. This segment conveyed a pithy and powerful overview of the distinctive aspects of Rhoden’s choreography: it is rooted in classical ballet but fluidly folds in a mix of African American and global dance elements. An arabesque, pirouette, or grand jeté can fluidly morph into something that makes an impressive impact.
That sense of being overwhelmed started immediately with an excerpt from “Hissy Fits” (2006). The piece is set to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” and the sound system was blasted full volume. Gabriela Montero’s piano sounded like waves of pounding percussion. Surrounded in fog with low lighting, the dancers wore flesh colored trunks for men and unitards for women. Seemingly nude, the dancers’ gender distinctions were blurred.
Rhoden’s style conflates ramped-up classical music with balletic and other forms. This deconstructive approach is consistent with postmodernism. Once these ground rules were established, our senses and expectations quickly adjusted.
Miguel Solano and Chloe Duryea partnered exquisitely in “Endgame/Love One” (2022), again with music of Bach. While following the form of a classical pas de deux, when Solano was lifting Duryea in an arabesque position her feet were dragged across the floor. This was a revealing signifier — we were not experiencing a traditional prince and princess. The impact was more about loss and impending separation.
Other works included “Pocket Symphony” (2023) and the Covid-inspired “Snatched Back from the Edges” (2021). The knockout piece of the pre interval was “Elegy” (202,0) which featured the 6’2” dancer Jillian Davis.
At booming volume we heard Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” The moody, melancholy dance, both classical and not, evoked a sense of nature as the sublime spiritual surrogate that informs romanticism. With a phenomenal wing span and daunting physical presence, Davis moved the air, wafting gusts of intensive passion over the audience. Just when we were seduced by Davis’s classical positions, she sank to the floor, writhing about and enthralling us. It was a shock when she slapped the floor. Only a handful of artists of this quality and intensity emerge in each generation.
The second part of the program featured what many of us may have come to see. Through extensive PR, “Star Dust” (2016) is the company’s best known and most widely performed work. It is a suite of nine songs, stretching from 1969 to 2016, by David Bowie. It’s a massive and masterful work that provides Bowie’s music with stunning, varied, and brilliant choreography. On every level it’s a masterpiece.
On the cusp of his death, Bowie completed his Blackstar album in 2016. The suite started with the mournful and otherworldly “Lazarus.” In the video for the song, Bowie was shrouded like a corpse and, stimulated by an urge to deliver a plaintive, layered final message, he makes a return from the dead. The soloist, Joe Gonzalez, has a je-ne-sais-quoi ability to add a final flourish to his moves that elevates them to the spectacular.
From the morbid the suite progresses into the familia,r with Jacopo Calvo as soloist for “Changes” (1971) and Alexander Haquia taking on “Life on Mars” (1969). A common thread to these performances is that the lead dancers lip-sync the lyrics.
Inevitably,“Life on Mars” was followed by “Space Oddity” (1969) with its familiar spoken mantra of “Ground Control to Major Tom.” The song is a particular favorite of mine, and it was intriguing to view how they interpreted the concept of space. Alexander Korsch’s lighting enhanced the experience
The suite of Bowie’s songs richly underscored the singer/composer’s range and the sophistication of his arrangements. In this context, they came off as more orchestral than rock and roll. Another aspect is the thematic variety of his material from the Orwellian “1984” (1974) to the existential “Heroes” (1977, sung by Peter Gabriel).
The pace picked up with soloist Miguel Solano in “Modern Love” (1983) from the groovy album Let’s Dance. It’s the phrase that former Pillow artistic director Ella Baff always used to end her intros.
The mood turned dark and introspective again with “Rock and Roll Suicide” (1972) from Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period. The tune focuses on the vulnerability of rock stars, who can be consumed by fame and devoured by fans. For musicians and artists, this level of adulation, which can lead to self-destruction, seems unfathomable. It was one of the most evocative and thought-provoking narratives in the suite.
For Bowie, the creative norm was constant growth, experimentation, and change. And that chameleonic ambition serves as a palpable challenge for the piece’s choreography. Through the nine segments, Rhoden explores every conceivable style and combination of dancers. There is a line of partners, backs turned to us, with an odd dancer out. In another pattern, the isolated end dancer goes down the line stopping to embrace individuals. There are solos, duets, and pas de trois combinations. Often I found myself seeking out Gonzalez and Davis when they were paired.
The performance ended with an upbeat blast of Bowie’s anthem “Young Americans” (1975). For the finale, the troupe pulled out all the stops — the Pillow rocked. It’s fascinating that a British artist composed this stunning tribute. Ironically, it was performed by an emblematic company of young Americans. Succinctly, they proved Bowie’s point.
They company members took curtain calls to the iconic “Let’s Dance.” Vivid memories will linger until next time.
Charles Giuliano has just published Annisquam: Pip and Me Coming of Age.