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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, June 1, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 22
Complexions Contemporary Ballet a remarkable and innovative dance troupe worth seeing
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Complexions Contemporary Ballet a remarkable and innovative dance troupe worth seeing

by Sharon Cumberland - SGN Contributing Writer

MEANY CENTER FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS
COMPLEXIONS CONTEMPORARY BALLET
MEANY HALL
UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON
May 17


I didn't see Complexions Contemporary Ballet when they came to Seattle nine years ago, but I wish I had. This remarkable dance troupe is justly famous all over the world for its powerful, intricate dance style, its seamless integration of ballet and modern dance movement, and its thrilling choreography. After the company's performance of the iconic 'Stardust,' based on the music and life of David Bowie, my dance buddy and I were short of breath and shaking with excitement, as if the astonishing inventions of choreographer Dwight Rhoden had literally moved us in our seats.

The name of this company, 'Complexions,' has a double meaning that refers both to the racial diversity of the dancers and the complexity of its ideas and movement. The company was founded in 1994 by Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, the first African American to rise to the rank of principal dancer in the prestigious American Ballet Theater Company. There is a clear commitment to diversity among Complexion dancers that reflects the reality of the actual world rather than the reality of the privileged 9.9%. (See Matthew Stewarts article 'The 9.9 Percent is the New American Aristocracy' in the current Atlantic). The complexity of movement in both 'Ballad Unto&' to J.S. Bach in the first part of the program, and 'Stardust' to David Bowie in the second, was so intricate and non-repetitive that one can only wonder how dancers can remember their movements. My first thought was that there must be elements of improvisation embedded in the dances, but I rejected that idea given the precision of group movement and close relation to the music. Instead of finding patterns that evolve with repetition, I found my mind constantly challenged by movements sprouting in all directions. The foundational ballet vocabulary is there, as is contemporary movement of every kind, but the narrative never stopped telling itself forward. The effect is like running downhill - exciting, thrilling, dangerous.

In 'Ballad Unto&' Rhoden anchors his exploration of Bach's highly structured music with the fifth position - that stable, dramatic pose in which the turned out legs are bent 90° at the knee creating a rectangular space with the floor. Dancers returned to this configuration repeatedly, though not predictably, as seven pairs of dancers in various combinations pin-wheeled through the air and across the stage in star-like movements. Rhoden deploys the arms as energetically as the legs in this composition, calling on dancers to use maximum extension as they lift and twirl each other through space. I was fascinated by the relationship to the music, which had nothing to do with description or illustration, and everything to do with creating a parallel universe - as though Bach's alien cousins had landed, speaking a strange but meaningful language. The Complexion dancers are strong, sinewy, and muscular. Though most of the movement is close to the ground, their power and spread makes them appear to be flying as they fold and unfold their bodies. This dance was an excellent statement of choreographic abstractions - like Bach's own music - that need nothing but form and space to communicate beyond language.

So it was all the more impactful when the curtain rose on 'Stardust' and dancers took turns lip-syncing to an array of David Bowie classics. In this dance the words were familiar yet strange as dancers impersonated the most outlandish guises of Ziggy Stardust - some even more outlandish than Bowie himself - as in the case of one enormous dancer who, half-clad and walking on pointe, slinked slowly across the stage like the Queen of the Cosmos. Each Bowie impersonator expressed a different dimension of the singer, from gender-shifting to shape-shifting, as they moved through 'Life on Mars,' 'Space Oddity,' 'Rock and Roll Suicide,' 'Changes,' and 'Young Americans.'

The fifth-position, starburst movement was present in this dance as well, but instead of Bach's structure we had the glam chaos of the Velvet Underground expressed in hip-slinging, head-rolling, chorus-line kicking flamboyance. Rhoden's choreography - classic ballet melting into angular, frantic disco moves - was so unexpected and ever-evolving that the combination of the expected lyrics and the unexpected movement built layer after layer of surprise and shock. My dance buddy and I both thought that this tribute to a rock 'n roll genius beat Mark Morris' 'Pepperland' tribute to the Beatles hands down. As much as I hate to diss Morris, our hometown hero, I wish he had produced half the energy, strangeness, and excitement in his tribute as Rhoden did for Bowie in 'Stardust.' The Fab Five deserve it! But so does David Bowie - and his iconic music is carried to a new level with this brilliant dance. I hope it won't be ten more years before we see Complexions in Seattle again. They are everything the dance world needs to forge new paths into the future.

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Complexions Contemporary Ballet a remarkable and innovative dance troupe worth seeing
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