The Joyce Theater catapults its scintillating 2019 season that encompasses an array of contemporary international movements with the celebrated and acclaimed COMPLEXIONS Contemporary Ballet. The company and its creators — founding artistic director/choreographer Dwight Rhoden (responsible for 80 ballets for COMPLEXIONS) and co-artistic director Desmond Richardson (ABT’s first African-American principal dancer who also performed on Broadway) — used the Joyce season debut to kick off their remarkable 25th anniversary. The quarter-century occasion marks a celebration of their groundbreaking innovation, not only in terms of unrivaled technique, but also the seamless integration of diverse movement styles, methods, cultures, music and dancers, all rooted in one form. of perfect classical and contemporary dance.
At a time when – and rightly so – diversity, equality and inclusion are hot topics and talked about, especially in the arts, COMPLEXIONS Contemporary Ballet honors nearly three decades of work, before it was no longer standard, supported and appreciated, but when it was downright revolutionary. What is perhaps most exciting and innovative about COMPLEXIONS then and now is that this approach not only extends to better representation of diversity in terms of race, gender and sexuality, but also to elements such as height, height and even personal style. This might not seem like something particularly unique, as other notable companies have done or are doing the same. However, what makes this so extraordinary is what they do with these differences – they work together with absolute equality of dynamics, roles, power, vulnerability and mastery in such a way that separative terms and identifiers such as “black/white”, “male/female”, “tall/small” become totally irrelevant and invisible because one is so mesmerized and fascinated 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 and reflected by all colors combined and unified. The name of the company, COMPLEXIONS, evokes two apt interpretations – that the company is made up of performers whose skin tones reflect every nuance of humanity, and that the dances, movement and vision behind them are complicated.
Both are true and have been vividly presented in Program A of three possible combinations (Programs A, B and C). The season, aptly nicknamed From yesterday to today, featured rotations of an amalgamation of audience favorites, including a New York premiere (BAC 25), a world first (wake up, 2019, a physical reaction to the daily news) and the triumphant return of STARDUST. Program A started with BAC 25 and, as was probably assumed, featured the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and also (perhaps less expected) Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the famous composer’s fifth child and second son, who was one himself.
I’ve seen quite a few Bach performances set to dance, but this one was practically effervescent. The program notes simply say: Reverence, Celebration, Moxie. All were clear and present in Rhoden’s exuberant physical depiction of Bach’s two soundscapes. Moxie and a sense of the party may have been clear in the energetic, athletic performance in simple bare leotards by resident costume designer Christine Darch who, when illuminated by Michael Korsch’s candlelight, showed every sinew gloriously sculpted forms of company members. The reverence came from a sense of the aristocracy that music demands. The dancers portrayed it with such elegance and grace that they seemed like courtier spirits gliding across a bare stage with an airy lightness as if gently pulled along by the strings of the violin or the tickle of the keys of the piano. It was quite remarkable to meet and demonstrate that the music, the mood, the movement and emotion can paint a visual portrait of a time and place of people long gone in a fresh and contemporary way.
But also brilliant and BAC 25 was, nothing could fully prepare the uninitiated for COMPLEXIONS Contemporary Ballet’s tribute to another iconic and more modern musical talent that begins with a “B”, a rebellious and revolutionary spirit that will no doubt be remembered for as long as than the 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 in progress to pay homage to prolific, androgynous and captivating rock n’ roll, restless and relentlessly prolific. Super star. I’m such a passionate admirer of all things Bowie that when I heard it was in the works, I considered making a pilgrimage to Michigan to witness it for myself in its very incarnation. Almost two and a half years later, the wait was worth it. Of all the tributes to David Bowie (and there are many), this one from COMPLEXIONS Contemporary Ballet might very well be the best for capturing the essence of the man and his music at its very heart. It’s clear that Rhoden has an incredible respect and reverence for Bowie and possesses the same desire for innovation, perfection, and extreme expressions of meticulously controlled chaos. The cast too, for once they donned the glitz and glamor (again, provided by Christine Darch, who turned it “up to 11” for these particular designs), the company let loose and unleashed all possible inhibitions, embodying all the confidence, contradictions, chameleon qualities, inventiveness and explosive emotions – physically and dramatically – like Bowie himself. Each number’s “leader” took the reins as the ensemble jumped and twirled around them. They lip-synced to the words with a rawness and intensity akin to famous and acclaimed drag performers (a la Lypsinka) who don’t just utter words, but embody them fully and with dedication, as well as the essence of the performers behind the songs.
“Lazarus,” Bowie’s latest music video, a song from his latest album and the name of the musical he created the year he died, was the edgy, brooding, dramatic debut after a snippet of “Warszawa “, an ambient collaboration with Brian Éno. With disco lights, glamour, glitz and brooding darkness despite a shiny facade, the aura of a seedy nightclub scene of gorgeous misfits was projected. But this nightclub and its inhabitants seemed more supernatural, alien even, much like Bowie in both skill and appearance. They seemed almost superhuman in their ability and execution, especially when Jared Brunson directed “Life on Mars?” moved on 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 picked up his toes exquisitely. Haynes even held an extraordinarily stimulating spider-shaped spike (perhaps a physics reference to Spiders From Mars?) for a remarkable length of time.
There were many highlights and every song was performed to perfection. Other highlights were equal parts swagger and bravado of punk rock edginess and disco brilliance of “1984’s” fast and furious choreography. The piece was commissioned with passion by Tim Stickney who bears an uncanny resemblance to Michael C. Hall (Hall played the character Bowie in the musical Lazarus). Majestic, swan-like redhead Jillian Davis (who looks like Tilda Swinton, a female Bowie lookalike and co-star in one of his music videos) dazzled in “Heroes.” Simon Plant led the company in the battle cry of “Rock and Roll Suicide” as he loudly and enthusiastically boasted with all his emotional might – “Oh no, my love, you are not alone!” But the best ensemble piece, where the COMPLEXIONS company returned to its complete equality where each member formed a dizzying array of exceptional expression, was the finale before the arcs – “Young Americans” – a 1975 song that seems all as relevant today.
But whether they are young Americans or not, one thing is certain: for COMPLEXIONS Contemporary Ballet, 25 years is only the beginning of their legacy and their 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 “STARDUST”. Photo by Sharon Bradford.