Complexions Contemporary Ballet
Gutter Glitter, So Not A… (An Epilogue to Gutter Glitter), Star Dust (A Ballet Tribute to David Bowie)
New York, Joyce Theater
24 January 2017
The New York based Complexions Contemporary Ballet is 23 years old this year, which is something of an accomplishment for a small contemporary troupe, particularly at a time when the future of the arts in America remains uncertain.
Founded by former ABT dancer Desmond Richardson and Alvin Ailey veteran Dwight Rhoden, the company’s programming revolves around Rhoden’s choreography, and there was more than a healthy dose of it on Tuesday night last week.
Slated as a “rock opera style production” created in the late David Bowie’s honour, Star Dust is a lengthy, razzle dazzle suite of dances set to Bowie’s most popular tunes. The costumes are bright, saturated, metallic and mostly spandex. The women wear leotards with bold lightning bolt patterns that are cut and styled like Olympian gymnastics outfits. These costumes, combined with Rhoden’s penchant for highly flexed wrists, backs and outstretched necks, make it difficult to get the athletic aesthetic out of one’s mind.
The tall Andrew Brader wears gold boots and neon lipstick to “Changes.” The rock opera comes to life via lip syncing, which Brader does as do all the soloists assigned to a song. The work moves through “Life on Mars,” “Space Oddity,” “1984,” “Heroes,” “Modern Love,’ “Rock and Roll Suicide” and “Young Americans” with some labour. Rhoden’s choreography – of which there was a full hour in the pre-intermission segment of the program – has its limitations, including repetition and high-density movement. Both Star Dust and Gutter Glitter stuff so much motion into a single bar of music that it feels like a competition: between dancers, the music and possibly the choreographer himself, trying to outdo each and every step. Legs fly, bodies whirl, lunge, dive and jump with such frenzy and extroverted energy that it can’t help but feel like these steps – their sequencing, frequency and speed – have been designed to meet the demands of a dance competition, ticking off move after show-off move in the brief amount of time the dancers have before a panel of judges. One sees the steps, rather than the music, eschewing Balanchine’s mantra, “See the music, hear the dance.”
Perhaps the most distinguishable dance was “Modern Love,” which had slightly more musical choreography and a dash of whimsy. After the blaze of activity – including robust corps work and pas de trois – quieted down onstage, Brader vogued solo as the song faded out, in a touching, “dance like no one is watching,” sequence. However it still fell short in truly rooting itself deep in the swing of the song, falling prey to busyness. Instead of working within Bowie’s music, and being guided by its aural architecture, the choreography tended to steamroll over it.
The sing-along aspect is camp, but if that road was to be ventured, the final product of Star Dust wasn’t camp enough. There was some voguing, and several dancers confidently owned their roles, such as the too-cool-for-school Doug Baum in the beginning of “Rock and Roll Suicide.” But despite the dancers’ enthusiastic efforts, the all-out factor remained diluted, possibly due to the choreography which didn’t support or synergize with the lip-syncing as much as it could have. Bowie’s songs deserved more space than they got in this packed piece.
Gutter Glitter, the opening work, was an hour long but felt longer. Audience retention was tricky: many people left partway through, and many more clapped part-way through, assuming that it was over. Set to a vast range of music which included ambient, electronic, classical, hip-hop, pop, Arvo Part and more, the work could be described as meandering at best. The first installment of Rhoden’s “Collage Series,” Gutter Glitter, according to the program notes, is “an abstract landscape of contrasting ideas, juxtaposing stories, characters, and environments that are diverse in origin.” The music and moods contrast, but the choreographic ideas don’t. Hyper-extensions, flexed muscles and folding bodies and sequences using trios (also common in Star Dust) abound. The choice to incorporate Arvo Part’s “Spiegel im Spiegel” also seemed a misstep, in that it is most famous in the dance world for Wheeldon’s liquid pas de deux from After the Rain, now an iconic work of contemporary ballet. Despite the vast diversity in music, the movement doesn’t change much, which is a shame, because Complexions boasts some extraordinarily capable dancers. While the notes speak of “a rising from the bottom and discovering the light within darkness,” this narrative was difficult to find in this muddy, over-muscled, labyrinthine work. While Rhoden’s choreography strives for overt expression, to the point of excess, the dancer who stood out the most was Kelly Marsh IV, whose elegant form captivated for its understated poise.