The Joyce Theater, NYC
November 18–30, 2008
Reviewed by Susan Yung

Photo by Paul B. Goode.

Dwight Rhoden’s Rise.


Complexions’ 16 dancers, led by the nonpareil Desmond Richardson, are among the most technically advanced around. But Dwight Rhoden’s choreography for these performers sometimes fights itself. It is so difficult, filled with one virtuoso feat after another, that it can feel dehumanized, offering bravura but little emotional connection. But a new work, Rise, to songs by U2, feels very human. Rhoden’s athletic, virtuosic style is exemplified in this premiere. He has never shied away from mass appeal, and Rise pushes that tendency to an extreme, eschewing the angst and earnestness that sometimes tether his work. Instead, the dancers smile, repeat simple phrases in sync with the strong rhythms of the loudly amplified music, and look like they’re having fun. Philip Orsano and Christina Dooling, in particular, injected palpable humanity into the suite. Recurring motifs in Rise include running in place, waving an open hand, and alternating straight arms flung high. When Rhoden chooses to be musically illustrative here, it’s satisfying, perhaps because rock itself is so kinetically primal.

The program was completed by three other premieres and a work from 2006. The new I Will Not Be Broken offered an emotional counterpoint to Rise. It featured actress S. Epatha Merkerson reciting and singing spirituals such as “People Get Ready” in a clear voice, as Richardson moved in suitably strong, defiant phrases. Richardson choreographed Fall, a premiere, for three women in swirling magenta skirts. He also contributed vocals, showing off his mellifluous voice. Rhoden’s Hissy Fits, to jazzy Bach, is like a story made up entirely of verbs: extreme pose succeeding extreme pose, fitting the goal of capturing “uncontrollable emotional impulses.” Jae Man Joo filled his fascinating new men’s duet, Surface, with circular, roiling, grounded movements that flowed together effortlessly.

Last summer, Rhoden choreographed for the TV show So You Think You Can Dance. It made perfect sense, despite the fact that Complexions has been around since 1994, touring and performing mainly within the more rarefied arena of contemporary dance. In those years, the troupe gained a following but not the millions that have now been exposed to his work. Time will tell whether there’s any lasting crossover to the company’s concert presentations.

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Complexions puts in rehearsal time.
Photo by Rose Eichenbaum


Ahmanson Theatre
Los Angeles, California
November 1–4, 2001

Reviewed by Sara Wolf

Dance in Southern California received a leg up in 2001 from the Center Dance Association, a new group dedicated to filling two venerable downtown L.A. venues, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Ahmanson Theatre, with such big names as Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theater, Twyla Tharp Dance, and the Bolshoi and Universal ballet companies. Rounding out the season was Complexions, choreographer Dwight Rhoden’s and dancer extraordinaire Desmond Richardson’s comparatively young venture, which opened its debut in Southern California with a lengthy three-hour program hosted by film personalities Whoopi Goldberg and Patrick Swayze.

Equally star studded was the Complexions roster, with Carmen de Lavallade and Gus Solomons jr guesting in an overly busy chair duet made memorable by de Lavallade’s gift for emotional nuance. As a company artist-in-residence, longtime Ailey dancer Sarita Allen reprised the type of strong and sassy female role she excelled at in several Ailey classics, in the evening’s extensive, show-stopping finale to Earth, Wind, & Fire, Higher Ground.

And then there was the incomparable Richardson, center stage amidst an A-list of dancers capable of holding their own next to him. Together, they made it sensationally, jaw-droppingly clear that we live in the age of the super-dancer, at a time when technical virtuosity is being redefined as an expressive state.

Rhoden has been madly choreographing for this group; each dancer, he has said, provides him with inspiration. His love and devotion were evident in a series of brief solos and duets showcasing individual strengths, both expressive and technical. Seeing them one after another, however, lessened the distinction and impact of each despite an array of astounding performances—most notably Sheri "Sparkle" Williams’s Bessie Award-winning solo, Growth.

Rhoden is like a kid in the proverbial candy shop, unsettled in what he’s aiming for, since, with this much talent on hand, he can aim anywhere and everywhere. Working with a muse like Richardson, Rhoden has developed a dazzling high-octane style that combines post-Balanchinean neoclassicism with post-Ailey Africanisms (albeit Ailey on amphetamines). In the equivalent of a game of chicken, he aggressively juxtaposed textures and dynamic extremes in rapid-fire succession, asking his dancers to ricochet between fast and furious attacks and sudden lyricism, the large feat and the delicate gesture.

That they met each challenge with grace and assurance set off recurring waves of applause from the appreciative Ahmanson audience, overshadowing a distinct lack of an extended through-line. Instead, shardlike phrases piled atop one another in an über-contemporary statement set to propulsive, beat-heavy dance music by resident composer Antonio Carlos Scott—or alternately, music by Steve Reich, Björk, and James Brown.

At its worst, this style can look fussy and frenetic. At its best, these convoluted knots of intricately woven articulations, forceful leg extensions, and intense partnering burst open like fireworks blossoming in the night sky—hot, colorful, ooh- and ahh-inspiring. This occurred most often when such sequences snapped into the larger architecture of group pieces like From Me to You in About Half the Time and "Wiegen Lied," an abstract excerpt from the John F. Kennedy, Jr. Suite. Here, Rhoden’s instinct for inventive, eclectic movement pastiche and his predilection for complexity and speed found structural ballast.

Some critics have noted an affinity between Rhoden and William Forsythe, while others have considered his choreography as the next evolutionary step of African American expression. Neither shoe fits well. From this concert it is clear that Rhoden’s path, like his formidable gifts, is singular. One can be sure that, with Richardson et al on hand to embody Rhoden’s prolific ideas, the ride down that path is going to be fascinating.

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