Complexions continues to break boundaries after 25 years

It’s hard to believe Complexions is celebrating their 25thanniversary.  Master choreographer Dwight Rhoden and legendary dancer Desmond Richardson founded the company in 1994 with a vision to fuse dance styles and cultures while breaking down confines of race, genre, time, and place.   And, a quarter of a century later, Complexions continues to literally perform its mission.  Not only is Complexion’s repertoire diverse, but it’s company members also personify this value.  Compared to most other dance companies (of any genre), Complexions is extremely varied in terms of both race and body type.  The dancers are free to show their individuality—a bright smile from Tatiana Melendez, tranquil technique from Thomas Dilley, and quirky beautiful shapes from Jillian Davis—and, because of these differences, moments when the company dances “as one” are more breath-taking than the precision of the Rockettes.

Complexions recently completed their residency at The Joyce Theater February 19th-March 3rd. The set list included excerpts from audience-favorites spanning the company’s 25-year history as well as one world and one New York City premiere.  While the montage of past pieces demonstrated the company’s varied themes and movement vocabulary, it felt like I was reading random chapters from different novels—none of which I knew the characters, setting, or context.  I appreciate the idea of a medley to celebrate the company’s history but feel choosing one full piece of repertoire paired with one full premiere would have been equally, if not more, cohesive.  Because I didn’t know the context of the “From Then to Now” excerpts, I will only speak on the works I saw in their entirety.

To start, I was blown away by “Bach 25,” an NYC premiere and the opening of Program A.  The curtain rose quickly to reveal the full company of dancers in flesh-colored leotards (with bodies like Greek gods and goddesses) slicing, undulating, lingering, turning, contracting, and leaping through space.  Complexions exemplifies the notion that, to be a genius, you have to master a craft before you can break the rules.  And the dancers are so technically brilliant in the norms of classical ballet that a hunched shoulder, hiked hip, or parallel leg then becomes the most stunning thing you’ve ever seen.

“Star Dust,” which premiered in 2016, is a ballet tribute to David Bowie. I expected to love this piece and was surprised by my disappointment.  The dancers’ lip-syncing felt kitschy and the choreography in unison seemed either under-rehearsed or lacking due to the dancers’ exhaustion from Act I.  For the first half of “Star Dust,” the female dancers (and, at one point, one male dancer) donned pointe shoes.  Moments worked: sexy slow walks en pointe across the upstage, dynamic and sharp arabesques.  But, for the most part, the toe boots appeared to hinder the women’s movement.  When they slipped back into ballet slippers late in the piece, it felt like weighted chains had lifted and they could finally dance with abandon and ease.  Overall, “Star Dust” did not seem to break barriers but instead squeeze in to fit a commercial mold like the juke-box musicals we’re so often seeing on Broadway. The Act was joyful and dynamic and memorable, sure.  But the real heart of Complexions felt a bit compromised.

The world premiere, “Woke,” was the heart of Complexions the audience was waiting for.  The piece combined modern, ballet, and even hip-hop styles with popular music and powerful spoken word.  The subject matter is topical and digestible (even if uncomfortable at times). Strangely, “Woke” is the piece most reminiscent of Complexions of yore starring Richardson himself—connected, exploratory, commanding, and vulnerable.

It’s wonderful that Complexions has remained so poignantly relevant and recognized in the dance world over these 25 years.  Yet, there is also something unsettling in the fact that, 25 years have gone by and Complexions is still so unique in their multicultural, physically-diverse company and risk-taking choreography—both technically and thematically.  This is still far from the norm in nearly every genre of dance.  In many ways, Complexions is still breaking the same boundaries.  When will they finally be broken?

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