I leave the opening gala of Complexions Contemporary Ballet half wanting to congratulate co-directors Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson and half wanting to scream. Why the congratulations? Because over 11 years they’ve developed a virtuosic, multiracial 22-member company and an audience for it. Because they showcase eye-popping dancing. Because they’ve attracted dancers who’ve had a history with major companies—such as Sandra Brown, ex ABT; Jodie Gates, ex Joffrey Ballet and Ballet Frankfurt; Donald Williams, guesting from Dance Theatre of Harlem, plus Heather Hamilton and Alicia Graf, ex DTH; and Edward Franklin and Sarita Allen—both, like Rhoden and Richardson, former Alvin Ailey Dance Company stalwarts. Congratulations, too, on the enviable facility for concocting steps possessed by Rhoden, Complexions’ principal choreographer.
And the screams? Also for Rhoden. The man has steps and ideas coming out his ears. I’ll bet that while he sleeps, tiny figures emerge from his brain and cavort on his pillow. But he doesn’t give the impression that he ever stops to think “Why this here?” or “Does this fit in with everyone else?” or “What is the main thrust of this movement, this section, this dance?” I’m not saying his choreography isn’t clever or original; much of it is. It’s just that his dances are overstuffed with steps and finicky little body adjustments, performed at high speed with few pauses. At times, he creates sequences so busy that eight men, say, can’t possibly manage to stay in unison.
Yet sometimes Rhoden designs the stage very satisfyingly. In an early section of White (an excerpt from the 2003 Anthem) and the first group section of the 2004 Pretty Gritty Suite (to Nina Simone songs), he creates a dense but legible picture with some figures still, others moving in minimal patterns, and a few others doing fancier stuff. In the semi-tribal Pretty, a long parade of pairs crosses the back, partners hunkered down, facing each other, and banging on tambourines. We need such respites.
A slight Ailey influence can be detected in Pretty, in terms of a mobile torso, but Ailey never made feet move this intricately. Complexions performed William Forsythe’s 1996 Approximate Sonata during its season, and Rhoden’s admiration for Forsythe shows in his own irrational tussles with the body. The dancers’ feet (on pointe at times) rapidly jab the floor while a stiff arm swats flies, a leg swings high, a shoulder rolls, and a head turns. Someone will grab someone else’s leg and do something to it—like pick it up and slam it down, or grab it and stir the air a few times with it. Company members have to be both precise and extravagant, strong but hyper flexible. They have to look motivated and determined even when what they’re doing has no obvious connection to what they just did, and their fervor is one of the most interesting things about Rhoden’s work. Who wouldn’t be thrilled when limber Graf and Brian Carey Chung toss their long legs around, when Franklin and Hamilton match their power in a duet, when Clifford C. Williams and Jeffrey Polston solo dazzlingly to Simon’s “Gimme Some?” Simone gives us “I Put a Spell on You,” and Jae-Man Joo, Sabra Perry, and Brown indeed mesmerize us with their fast-twitch dancing.
The group dances are full of duets, which often come across as aggressive because of their speed and physical complexity. Two additional duets reveal slightly different facets of Rhoden’s style. Sweet Low Rise follows the lyrics of the accompanying songs: “Be my lovin’ man; I’ll be your wife” and “Don’t treat me so doggone mean.” Franklin orders Allen around and brutalizes her virtuosically. Allen eloquently shifts from desire to fear to anger, finally embracing amorous victimhood. It’s one of those duets with woman-as-rag-doll. Why Rhoden should treat a soupy Ave Maria as a love duet but end it with Brown arched back over Williams, her arms spread in a cross is a mystery, but the two performed the hell out of the duet.
The brand new Showman’s Groove is a whole other ballgame. It’s a solo Rhoden made for Richardson, his muse and until recently his offstage partner. To Gershwin tunes and a Beatles song, Richardson has the time of his life. He’s got a nice black jacket with lavender satin lining, he’s got nimble feet and a lilt in his steps. What a day! Everything he does looks easy no matter how tricky, and he brings to the choreography a personal timing that’s a contrast to the relentless pace of Rhoden’s other dances.