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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Complexions at Summerstage: An Incomplete Review


  New York’s Summerstage series features a variety of theater, music, and dance in dozens of performances from June through August--all completely free. Along with some of the city’s other free arts festivals, like River2River and the Bryant Park Film Festival, Summerstage makes enduring New York’s humid summers all the more bearable. On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of seeing Complexions Contemporary Ballet in Central Park for the first time. Founded by Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson in 1994, Complexions remains one of the nation’s most widely acclaimed contemporary ballet companies. With cutting-edge choreography, and a team of strong dancers, this performance proved that Complexions lives up to its mission statement that "dance should be about removing boundaries, not reinforcing them." Although I frequently see Complexions dancers in the hallways at the Joyce's DANY studios, I’d never had the opportunity to see them live.
     The evening opened with an excerpt from Dwight Rhoden’s powerful “Mercy". The company utilized a specially-designed curtain to enter and exit from directly upstage rather than the wings. The effect worked well. I felt almost like I was suspended, zooming in and out of the scene of moving bodies. While the dancers executed Rhoden’s choreography with great athleticism and artistry, I felt someone attacked by the piece. The discordant, spliced-together music, combined with the angry, overly-aggressive choreography made me feel attacked and startled. Perhaps this was Rhoden's intention--to surprise the audience, startle them--however, the piece seemed to push me away, rather than engage me.
    Thankfully, Desmond Richardson’s solo, “Moonlight” drew me right back in again. Richardson’s keen understanding of musical phrasing, coupled with his almost unmatchable, strong technique, makes watching him an almost other-worldly experience. Although I’m not too fond of the trend of using chairs on stage in modern dance, “Moonlight” seamlessly integrates the prop, using it as a tool rather than a gimmick or a distraction.
     "On Holiday", a world premier choreographed by Dwight Rhoden to the classic songs of Billie Holiday, finished the first act. Here, I saw dancers connect with one another in real and interesting ways for the first time. The piece incorporates ensemble work with a series of pas de deux. The program does not list the names of the dancers who performed each role, but I was blown away by the chemistry, technical prowess, and athleticism of individual couples. Strangely, although the dancers seemed more connected to one another during duet and solo moments than any other point in the show, the ensemble moments revealed a strange, complete lack of synchronicity. During the opening movement particularly, the ensemble work seemed unpolished and disjointed. Rhoden's contemporary interpretation of Billie Holiday's often melancholy, occasionally romantic ballads, was brilliant. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw not one corny affectation or forced attempt to make the piece "period." I would, however, like to see Rhoden utilize pauses and changes of dynamic more in his choreography. The energy of the piece (and the entire performance) remained largely on one level. Complexions gives it up right away, never giving the audience a chance to want more.
      I also thought Rhoden also got a little carried away with the acrobatic lifts and showy partnering. Everything was executed well, but with such fine technical dancers, it seems a shame to not to utilize any opportunity to let them milk even the simplest movements for all they're worth. The "in-between steps" sometimes seemed only to function as a means to connect tricky lifts or movements. That said, "On Holiday" nearly brought tears to my eyes at its finest moments. The live vocals of Billy Porter, and the elegant, eye-catching costumes added a touch of magic to the fantastic premier.

 I wasn't able to take any notes during act two, so I'll leave you with just one act's worth of thoughts. Any critique I offer here is completely nit-picky. Complexions is truly one of the strongest dance companies in the world right now, and I'm amazed not only by the quality of the artistry, but company's ability to build innovative, modern work, on a foundation of classical dance.

1 comment:

  1. I still have yet to see them live either (and Dwight was the resident choreographer when I was an apprentice at NCDT). In fact, one of the girls I danced with there is now a member of his company. She's a beast (like the rest of them).