BWW Review: COMPLEXIONS, THE ROCKSTARS OF BALLET, TACKLE LENNY KRAVITZ at Joyce Theater
Winter in New York City is not known for being particularly steamy (though the unseasonably mild weather this year gives one reason to pause), but there is always Complexions Contemporary Ballet's season at the Joyce Theater to turn up the heat to a feverish, sweltering boiling point! For the 26th season, the company revived recent seminal works -- Bach 25 and Woke -- alongside favorites spanning from 1994 to a brand new solo in Essential Parts, which acted as a "Greatest Hits" compilation for the ever-evolving, always revolutionary dance troupe. This year also marked the World Premiere of their latest exploration of the full canon of a particular musician's oeuvre -- Love Rocks featuring the music of the iconic Grammy-winning rockstar, Lenny Kravitz. For patrons unable to attend all programs, FOMO (fear of missing out) syndrome is understandable, but for those who are highly familiar with the group's work or only getting their first taste, Program C -- which featured the latter two mentioned -- was the most delectable sampling of Complexions offerings old and new. The fascinating thing about such juxtapositions is that, in seeing the latest creations from 2020 side-by-side with choreography premiered in the early 1990s, it is remarkable to note how the level of innovation, depth of emotion and current relevance remains the same. It's a reminder that timeliness and timelessness can coexist, given the right mediums and masters. The genius of legendary Co-Founders, Co-Artistic Directors Desmond Richard and Dwight Rhoden (also the Principal Choreographer) cannot be underestimated. Indeed, it has not. They have both achieved phenomenal success and longevity, been lauded as trailblazers and received numerous accolades from peers, critics and audiences alike since they burst on the dance scene. It's no wonder that they have utilized the music of David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Kendrick Lamar and Lenny Kravitz to tell their stories through bodies in motion -- they are rockstars themselves!
Seeing the Complexions Contemporary Ballet company in the flesh can act as an instant aphrodisiac. Every one of the dancers is so toned and ripped as if they were cut from stone, every single conceivable muscle and sinew fully at attention so much that they appear like something out of a Grey's Anatomy drawing of the human muscular system with a thin coat of skin-colored paint. But it is not just the way they look, it's the way they move. To quote the lyrics from the quirky hit song by American duo LMFAO, Complexions dancers are "sexy and they know it." Each one owns their body, space and emotions with remarkable individuality and uniqueness. But when they come together, their potent singularity morphs into an orgiastic frenzy of heavenly bodies exploding with divine expression. The painterly lighting design by Michael Korsch caresses their forms as if anointing them with an ethereal glow, alternating with stark contrasting shades of darkness and light. The dancers are clearly so comfortable with each other that when performing in a group number, trio or duo, they move as if they are one organism with different limbs and organs functioning as a single unit. Even within their solo numbers, the presence of their cohorts (and choreographer) are felt. Be it Bach or Rock, these performers take the music into their very DNA and transmute it into a dynamic, sensual and soulful physical embodiment.
Essential Parts -- a sampling of excerpts from Complexions' greatest hits -- opened with "Dear Frederic", premiered in 2007 with the company clad in lavender leotards enacting graceful and feline movements, sometimes accompanied by claps or gasps of breath with a jazzy, jovial mood set to thudding piano composed or inspired by Chopin. That was followed by a duet performed by Daniela O'Neil and Craig Dionne called "Testament" from 2011. The rich, resonant vocalists of a choir sung the traditional "Amazing Grace" with a heavy dose of lamentation as the dancers clutched and supported each other, almost never losing their grasp and connection to one another, save for mere seconds. After that came the aptly titled ''Elegy", a solo work and 2020 world premiere starring one of Complexions' most compelling and mesmerizing artists -- Jillian Davis. She is a commanding and stately presence, tall with alabaster skin and short red hair, otherworldly and bewitching. To the music of Beethoven's classic "Moonlight Sonata", Davis projected solitude, loss and longing with emotional depth and gestures that were reminiscent of a regal white crane.
The next in the well-curated series was a group number, a taste of "Woke", which premiered in 2019 to many accolades and was brought back as part of the 2020 season. It was an urgent piece, a response to the daily news with a bombardment of so much violence, hate and misunderstanding. Performed by the full company both barefoot and en pointe, it was equal parts pained and tormented as well as passionate and hopeful -- much like the current state of the world and those who inhabit it. The oldest piece -- "Wonder - Full", that premiered in 1994 -- lived up to its name by being a fantastic tribute to Stevie Wonder through utilizing his song "All in Love is Fair'' and is, quite simply put, absolutely wonderful. It was another solo performed by the indomitable Brandon Gray (an example of chiseled perfection) who donned a silken purple shirt and snow-colored underwear a la Tom Cruise in Risky Business but so much more alluring, masculine and confident. The stark whiteness of the shorts against his dark skin was further exaggerated by Korsch's arresting lighting design that shifted from sensual red and golden tones to sharp shards of bright light cutting through a black stage. The result was transfixing; Korsch's ability to morph light to tell a story and also showcase the beauty of dark skin was exemplary and evocative of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe who had mastered that form of expression so brilliantly. Gray's royal-hued garment came to life as it danced in the winds created by his furious yet sensuous movements, and became his dance partner in a moment that expressed his prowess and confidence with equal parts vulnerability and sensitivity. "Choke" was a duet with two male dancers, Thomas Dilley and Simon Plant, who in silvery shorts blended grandness and masculine virility with elegance and a delicate touch. The Essential Parts portion closed with a showstopper entitled "On Holiday" that featured the duo Jared Brunson and Larissa Gerszke (who could win the award for best partner throughout the entire production) in a tragic romantic tug-o-war to the song "My Man (Mon Homme)" with vocals sung by Billy Porter. The couple enters from the wings as if they were emerging from a darkened alley. Gerszke is clad in heels and a skirt which swishes boldly to accentuate her hips and she spoke volumes without saying a word with her body and gaze. Brunson is outfitted in dress slacks and an open shirt, portraying the player that the lyrics describe, always up for anything, loyal to none but himself. Their tortured tango is theatrical, provocative and enchanting. In the end he comes, quite literally, crawling after her, much to the chagrin of the enraptured audience who burst into spontaneous applause and vocal expression of approval.
Love Rocks, Complexions' 2020 world premiere set to the music of Lenny Kravitz, commenced with a visual representation of what Complexions is at the very center of its core and being -- a cluster, a unit. The huddle breaks apart and reveals the company in stunning black haute couture ensembles envisioned by Christine Darch that one could imagine having seen on a Jean Paul Gauthier or Alexander McQueen runway show. The dancers reunited in various pairings and combinations -- for dynamic partnering is one of the company's strongest assets. The remixed vocals (Corey Folta provided the sound design), quivered with reverb and vibrations that echoed like haunted memories as the performers executed impressive floorwork, lifts and partnering all with breathtaking precision fused with a heady, heavy jolt of intoxicating swagger and sex appeal. They became a soundtrack-come-to-life as they spun each other around like a vinyl record, tumbled down like dominoes falling in succession, and strutted en pointe with swaying, entrancing hips and then grounded down into ninety-degree angles while still lifted, breaking the illusion of the delicate ballerina. These women (and men) are no shrinking violets or soft as petals -- they are powerful, free spirits who are strong as steel and flexible yet taut as guitar strings. When they all came together, it was an ecstatic pandemonium worthy of Woodstock. Even stage dives became part of the physical vocabulary de rigueur.
But, much like Kravitz's musical catalogue, it is not merely one pulsating rock tune after another (though there are plenty). In Love Rocks, variations of themes, tones and emotions -- the full spectrum of human encounters -- came into play. The breaths and subtleties are like a pause and cuddle between orgasms right before you have another go at it. These were some of the most exciting moments. The lyrics punctuated the dance's movements and made every gesture pregnant with meaning. In a segment with multiple-gendered pairings (male/male, male/female, female/female) Kravitz imparted the wise words, "We should find out who we really are." During the song "Fly Away", arguably one of his best-known hits, the company metamorphosed into eagles and nearly flew off the stage. Tim Stickney and Vincenzo Di Primo stood out as exceptional showmen -- much like a lead singer or guitarist of a band -- full of bravado and hyper-sexualized confidence. The women also, all of them, were tantalizing and exuded prowess and feminine strength. However, it is hard to claim a particular standout, for each and every member was and is an exceptional performer, and without one the puzzle would have been incomplete. To that, Love Rocks ended as it began -- with each and every Complexions company member united together as one entity.
For more information about Complexions Contemporary Ballet, visit: https://www.complexionsdance.org/