BWW Review: COMPLEXIONS Contemporary Ballet 25th Anniversary Celebration at the Joyce is a Spectrum of Perfection
The Joyce Theater catapults its scintillating 2019 season that encapsulates an entire spectrum of contemporary international movement with a renowned and acclaimed audience-favorite, COMPLEXIONS Contemporary Ballet. The company and its creators -- founding Artistic Director/choreographer Dwight Rhoden (responsible for 80 ballets for COMPLEXIONS) and co-Artistic Director, the Desmond Richardson (the first African American principal dancer for ABT who also performed on Broadway) -- used the Joyce season debut to launch their remarkable 25th year anniversary. The quarter-century occasion marks a celebration of their groundbreaking innovation, not only in terms of their peerless technique, but seamless integration of various styles of movement, methods, cultures, music, and dancers all rooted in perfect balletic and contemporary dance form.
At a time when -- rightfully so -- diversity, equality, and inclusion are hot and talked-about topics, particularly in the arts, COMPLEXIONS Contemporary Ballet is honoring nearly three decades of doing just that, before it was more standard, supported and appreciated, but when it was downright revolutionary. What is perhaps most exciting and trailblazing about COMPLEXIONS then and now, is that this approach extends not only to better representation of diversity in terms of race, gender and sexuality, but elements such as size, height, and even personal flair. This may not seem to be something particularly unique as other notable companies have done or are doing the same. However, what makes that so extraordinary is what they do with those differences -- they perform together with absolute equality of dynamics, roles, power, vulnerability, and masterfulness in such a way that separative, identifying terms such as "black/white", "male/female", "tall/short" become entirely irrelevant and invisible as one is so mesmerized and entranced by their skill and execution that one becomes blind to anything else. White light, which can be beautiful but also blinding like a spotlight, is composed of and reflects off all the colors combined and unified. The company name, COMPLEXIONS, evokes two appropriate interpretations -- that the company is comprised of performers whose skin tones reflect every hue of humanity and that the dances, the movement and the vision behind them are complicated.
Both are true and were showcased strikingly in Program A of three possible combinations (Programs A, B and C). The season, fittingly dubbed From Then to Now, featured rotations of an amalgamation of audience favorites including a New York premiere (BACH 25), one world premiere (WOKE, 2019, a physical reaction to the daily news) and the triumphant return of STAR DUST. Program A began with BACH 25 and, as likely assumed, featured the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and also (perhaps less expected) Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the fifth child and second son of the famed composer, who was one himself.
I have seen a good deal of interpretations of Bach set to dance, but this one was practically effervescent. The program notes simply state: Reverence, Celebration, Moxie. All were clear and present in Rhoden's exuberant physical representation of both Bach's soundscapes. Moxie and a sense of celebration may have been clear from the energetic, athletic performance in simple nude leotards by resident costume designer Christine Darch that when illuminated with the glow of candlelight by Michael Korsch, displayed every sinew of the company members' gloriously sculpted forms. Reverence came from a sense of aristocracy that the music requires. The dancers portrayed it with such elegance and grace that it seemed as if they were the spirits of courtiers gliding across a bare stage with an airy lightness as if gently pulled by the violin strings or the tickling of piano keys. It was rather remarkable to encounter and demonstrated that music, mood, movement and emotion can paint a visual portrait of a people time and place long gone in a fresh and contemporary way.
But as brilliant and BACH 25 was, nothing could fully prepare the uninitiated for the COMPLEXIONS Contemporary Ballet tribute to another iconic , more modern musical talent that begins with a "B", a rebel and revolutionary spirit who will undoubtedly be remembered for as long as legendary composers who lived centuries before him: David Bowie.
STAR DUST: A Ballet Tribute to David Bowie premiered in Detroit in May 2016 and is the first installment of a full evening-length work in progress to pay homage to the genre-bending, androgynous and captivating, restlessly and relentlessly prolific rock n' roll superstar. I am such an avid admirer of all things Bowie that when I first heard this was in the works, I debated making a pilgrimage to Michigan to witness it for myself at its very incarnation. Almost two and a half years later and it was well worth the wait. Of all of the tribute to David Bowie (and there are many), this one by COMPLEXIONS Contemporary Ballet may very well be the very best at capturing the essence of the man and his music at its very core. It is clear that Rhoden has incredible respect and reverence for Bowie and possesses the same desire for innovation, perfection and extreme expressions of meticulously controlled chaos. The does cast too, for once they donned the glitter and glam (again, provided by Christine Darch, who turned it "up to 11" for these particular designs) the company let loose and unleashed any possible inhibitions, embodying all of the confidence, contradictions, chameleon-qualities, inventiveness and sheer explosive emotions -- physically and dramatically -- as Bowie himself. The "lead" in each number, took the reigns as the ensemble lept and twirled around them. They lip-synched to the words with rawness and intensity akin to famous, acclaimed drag artists (a la Lypsinka) who don't merely mouth words but entirely and devotedly embody them as well as the essence of performers who originated the songs.
"Lazarus", Bowie's last music video, a song from his final album and the name of the musical he premiered the year of his passing, was the edgy, moody and dramatic beginning following an excerpt of "Warszawa," an ambient collaboration with Brian Eno. With the disco lights, glam, glitter and brooding darkness despite a shiny façade, the aura of a seedy nightclub scene of magnificent misfits was cast. But this discotheque and its inhabitants appeared more otherworldly, alien even, much like Bowie both in terms of talent and appearance. They seemed almost superhuman in their ability and execution, most notably when the Jared Brunson helmed "Life on Mars?" transitioned to "Space Oddity." The female dancers strutted across the stage en pointe like extraterrestrial beings on parade while the lead male dancer (Maxfield Haynes) also took to his toes exquisitely. Haynes even held an extraordinarily challenging-looking spider-like en pointe (perhaps a physical reference to Spiders From Mars?) for a remarkable length of time.
There were many highlights, and each song was performed to perfection. Other standouts were the swagger and bravado with equal parts punk rock edginess and disco brilliance from the fast and furious choreography for "1984." The piece was passionately commanded by Tim Stickney who bears an uncanny resemblance to Michael C. Hall (Hall played the Bowie character in the musical Lazarus). Stately and swan-like redhead Jillian Davis (who resembles Tilda Swinton, a female Bowie doppelganger and co-star of one of his music videos) dazzled in "Heroes." Simon Plant led the company in the battle cry of "Rock and Roll Suicide" as he powerfully and enthusiastically extolled with full emotive force -- "Oh no, love, you're not alone!" But the very best ensemble piece, where the COMPLEXIONS company returned to its complete equality where every member formed a dizzying array of exceptional expression, was the finale before the bows -- "Young Americans" -- a song from 1975 that feels just as relevant today.
But be they young Americans or not, one thing is certain -- for COMPLEXIONS Contemporary Ballet, 25 years is only the beginning of their legacy and legendary status.
COMPLEXIONS Contemporary Ballet Company in "WOKE". Photo by Nina Wurtzel.
COMPLEXIONS Contemporary Ballet Company in "Bach 25". Photo by Sharon Bradford.
Shanna Irwin and Jared Brunson in "Bach 25". Photo by Sharon Bradford.
COMPLEXIONS Contemporary Ballet Company in "STAR DUST". Photo by Sharon Bradford.
Shanna Irwin in "STAR DUST". Photo by Sharon Bradford.
Tim Stickney in "STAR DUST". Photo by Sharon Bradford.