Dwight Rhoden called on more than a dozen dancers to gather online to review some choreography. He would check a handful of points in his ballet before running through it. Each revealed a stylized outline of the movement and an excerpt from a David Bowie song, nine of which form the score for Stardust, a tribute to the late music star. Days before the first anniversary of Bowie’s death last year, Complexions Contemporary Ballet was rehearsing the piece in preparation for its New York premiere at the Joyce Theatre, where it will run for two weeks from January 24.
“It’s a love note to him, really,” says Rhoden, artistic director of Complexions who choreographed Stardust. the former dancer of Alvin Aileywho has created work for Ailey, Dance Theater of Harlem, New York City Ballet and other major companies, sat in a quiet corner of the Joffrey Dance Center in Queens after rehearsal.
David Bowie “was wacky, wild, wonderful, weird, beautiful, poignant. His work was all of those things,” says Rhoden. Her love letter reads, “Thank you for the color, thank you for the energy, thank you for the passion, thank you for the stories.”
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Stardust had its first and only performance of 2016 at Detroit’s Music Hall in June, about six months after Bowie’s death from cancer. But Rhoden, who has choreographed works like To augmenton the music of U2; Inner visions, a tribute to Stevie Wonder; and To scratchset to Metallica – had floated the idea of a Bowie tribute long before.
His music “was the sound of when I was growing up. During my teenage years and in high school, it was David Bowie everywhere for me,” says Rhoden, who recalls that his mother and older sisters had played Bowie before. even as he consciously discovers the musical icon. “And then I saw it. I think it was the visual with the voice,” he says. “I was just done, I was so inspired. I wanted to be like that.”
Since adolescence, Rhoden has been attracted to Bowie. “The multiplicity of his personas, and his ability to create these characters and these worlds really, song by song,” he explains. “He was such a chameleon.” The choreographer, who incorporates ballet, modern dance, contemporary, hip-hop and other types of movement into his work, was drawn to genre-distorting theatricality. When Bowie died just two days after releasing his last album, Black Star, his fans were stunned. Among them was Rhoden, whose idea of a tribute acquired an unexpected sense of urgency.
The current iteration of Stardustwhich New Yorkers will get a chance to see later this month, begins with “Lazarus,” the last single released by Bowie before his death, and runs back through his catalog, incorporating songs like “Changes,” “Space Oddity,” “Heroes” (sung by Peter Gabriel) and “Modern Love,” then ending with “Young Americans.” Rhoden struggled to choose just a handful of songs. “I love it all,” says he, calling the selection “a process of negotiation with myself.” He hopes to eventually stretch the work from about 40 minutes into a play to a full evening.
The music is the first and most direct link with Bowie, but the tribute is also in the movement. Rhoden’s vocabulary is steeped in androgynous, serpentine spines, articulate hips, small and precise hand gestures, great sweeping lines of arms, unorthodox head movements, sinewy walks and forced arcs – when the feet jump sur pointe or demi-pointe while the knees are bent. If you take off the pointe shoes and formal dance training and let those steps simmer, you can see something of Bowie standing at the mic, a low-key groove starting in his pelvis as he sings.
“I feel like the rhythm is going through the hips,” says Rhoden. “The hands and arms really evoke… the heart you would feel inside his work, the vulnerability,” he adds. “I always thought he had a real vulnerability towards him, a real gentleness too. He had a lot of heart. And he also had a sense of humor.”
With specific movement language, Rhoden tried to access these emotions while giving in to the idea that Bowie’s music “got in your body and just took you out”.
Rhoden returned to the Bowie Archives to do Stardustre-listening to albums that span nearly half a century – and sharing playlists and lyrics with the young dancers, who had all heard of Bowie but were not necessarily familiar with his music – and browsing also pictures and videos.
“Sometimes it was like the shape of one of his costumes, or the way he stood on stage,” that inspired aspects of the movement style, Rhoden says. “He had a quirky and interesting way of moving his head, turning his eyes and even dancing…And I tried to incorporate that into the form of the choreography.”
In its very first performance on stage in Detroit last June, Stardust received an emotional response and a standing ovation, Rhoden recalled. It is not a surprise. Rhoden’s complexions and choreography are certainly known to be a crowd pleaser. But they weren’t always critical darlings.
In 2008, Roslyn Sulcas wrote in The New York Times this To augment “uses well-known songs from rock band U2 for a bouncy, pumped-up dance that serves no purpose but to get listeners up and cheering. They were. But again, they’re still for complexion.”
Despite the crowd’s obvious enthusiasm, she wrote, “The works, mostly by Mr. Rhoden, are hyperkinetic, flashy displays of physical prowess that mostly scream one thing: ‘Look at me here with my fabulous body. doing fabulous things!”
Think: the Harlem Globetrotters instead of the Golden State Warriors.
Such an examination is not unusual. “For a troupe named in honor of the multicultural composition of its dancers, it remains distressingly bland,” another one Time critic, Gia Kourlas, wrote from the November 2015 season of Complexions at the Joyce, which included the Metallica piece. “Where diversity matters too – in his choreography – that’s where this company fails,” she added, later identifying “the one time Mr. Rhoden seemed to go beyond his usual impulses and deliver something.” with a sense of humanity.”
There are a lot of dangers that come with choreographing to popular music. The potential for kitsch is usually too powerful to be overcome by even the most skilled artists with the best intentions. But Rhoden isn’t afraid to go. He likes to work with the music of emblematic figures and groups. And when he does, “there’s a reverence I want to return to them, there’s a respect, there’s a huge legacy that I have to honor, and I feel responsible to do my best.”
With Stardust, Rhoden may have found the right subject and managed to avoid at least some of his previous shortcomings, as well as some of the pitfalls that tend to accompany popular music work, if promising repetition is any indication. He is effusive when he talks about Bowie. “I love his music, I love what he talks about, I love the theatrics of all [his] creations.” This love shines through in the steps he choreographed.
And even if those aren’t critically acclaimed either, maybe that doesn’t matter. It is the public reaction that Rhoden seems most concerned about. “I don’t want any rules or boundaries,” he says. And “sometimes I like to send the audience home with something that goes down a little easier,” he adds. “I’m not afraid to entertain you.”