The Jan. 19 performance of Complexions Contemporary Ballet was directly fueled by the super-charged energy and astonishing technical prowess of its dancers, and it was a sensational opening for the 2024 Dance Series at the Duncan Theatre in Lake Worth Beach.
This company is the flashy sports car of ballet. It’s all about sleek lines, high throttle adrenaline and blurring speed that flashes by non-stop. What a ride! For some viewers, it might be too much to watch with no time to truly savor a quiet moment but for others, it is sheer breathtaking exhilaration.
The dancers were truly stunning — each and every one of them. The beautifully chiseled bodies came in a gleaming array of different complexions and statures. Highlighting this kind of diversity is unusual for a ballet company but co-founders and Co-Artistic Directors Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, from the very inception of the company 28 years ago, dared to believe that this kind of diversity would hallmark their ballet company.
Their intention was clear. They wanted to be a different kind of ballet company — one that removed boundaries rather than reinforced them. Blending ballet technique with different methods and styles of dance together with the influences of different cultures from around the world, Rhoden, who is the principal choreographer, has successfully created a popular brand of choreography that has been recognized across the globe for its showy, polished style and extreme athleticism.
The first half of the program consisted of smaller works and excerpts from longer dances by Rhoden, which were presented without breaks or curtain bows almost as if they were one piece of choreography. The first and last fast-paced excerpts were danced by the full company and bookended two duets and a solo. The assortment was held together with smoke and dark silhouetted lighting which made it challenging to distinguish each dancer and the separate dances.
Choke (2006), choreographed to the “Summer” concerto from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, was beautifully performed by two women, Christian Burse and Marissa Mattingly (who grew up in Tampa). Originally choreographed for two men, the women took on the competitive duet with confidence as their silhouettes cut through the smoke and darkness with graceful strength even though the murky lighting made it difficult to be drawn in to them as performers as it did not allow us to see their expression.
However, the solo Elegy (2020), which was created for and performed by Jillian Davis, a strikingly tall dancer, managed to successfully draw me in. Made in loving memory of the mothers of the two directors, it is set to the first movement of Beethoven’s well-known Moonlight Sonata. With a good balance between facial and corporal expressions of grief, Davis wove the movement of the six-minute solo together with a clear command while showing a myriad of different movement qualities and a special sensitivity to musical phrasing. This was the first moment of the evening to intimately experience a dancer’s performance.
For me, this moment of focus was very welcome after the dizzying pace of the previous excerpts. But no sooner than Davis’ touching performance ended, the rapid fire pace was resumed with Work It Out (an excerpt from Snatched Back From The Edges), a work that Rhoden conceived and choreographed during the pandemic.
Set to Tye Tribbett’s driving music of the same name with its repeating lyrics of “come on — work it,” the piece claimed to be “a chronicle of the indelible human spirit, in the eye of a storm.” Good to know as the movement — as amazing as it was — gave no time for any dramatic themes and emotions to develop and ripen.
After intermission, we had the opportunity to see a full-length work of Rhoden’s performed. Choreographed in 2019, Woke is a seven-section, full company piece that — according to a program note — is a physical reaction to the daily news. Woke is a heady choice for a title as the word’s meaning has devolved over the last four years. During this time of political turmoil, it is being fiercely debated as to whether it is a “good” or a “bad” thing to be woke in America. How about it is just necessary to be finally addressing these issues?
Rhoden’s dance version of being woke relied heavily on the message delivered by the lyrics and music of various rap, hip-hop, electronic pop, and R&B recording artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Logic, Drake and others. Combined with the all-out dancing and out-there choreography, the piece pulsed with the disarray present in people’s lives today. The lyrics, which highlighted the themes of racial and immigration inequity, gun violence and police brutality, seemed an unlikely pairing with razor-edge clean ballet technique on display as well as the chic costume design by resident costume designer Christine Darch and the arresting and very cool monochromatic (but still rock-star) lighting design of resident lighting designer Michael Korsch.
The choreography in this 42-minute piece had an intense speed, much like newspaper pages spinning off the printing press but there was a curious mapping during the last sections of the dance. Several times I felt that a full-throttle, full-company section was (and should have been) the end but it was followed by a smaller and quieter section (that did managed to re-engage me) but then, it revved right back up again. I was satiated. The slow-downs and start-ups were trying because by then, I had seen enough of Rhoden’s dense, full-out, in-your-face choreography.
Complexions Contemporary Ballet is a conundrum. It is a wildly popular ballet company but, because of the inherent snobbism in the ballet world as to what is and isn’t ballet, it is very often dissed by the old guard of the art form. But this company packs the house and thrills its audiences. Take the audience on the night of Jan. 19 at the Duncan Theatre. They were a very sophisticated but very senior citizen, all-white-complexioned group but they couldn’t stop ecstatically jumping to their feet to applaud at every possible opportunity — a perfect example of how successful Complexions Contemporary Ballet is at widening the boundaries of what a ballet company can be.
Will I remember this performance? Hell, yes.
I will remember the luminous and etched clarity of Vincenzo Di Primo, the calm but collected energy of Kobe Atwood Courtney with their full afro silhouetted, the diminutive fireball Jasmine Heart Cruz, the grace and elegance of Christian Burse, the eye-catching lines of April Watson, the command and stature of the edgy Jillian Davis as well as the strong stage presence of the magnificent Joe Gonzalez in addition to the 11 other amazing company dancers.
Would I go back to see the company again? Absolutely.
Would I then have the same feelings about the choreography? Probably.
And those gorgeous dancers? I would go see them again — and again.