Sunday night's Union Theater performance by Complexions Contemporary Ballet is a wakeup call for Madison dancers and dance patrons of all stripes. This is what dance performance oughta be in the 21st century, and we see precious little of it around here. This multiethnic company's got the strongest post-Balanchine ballet technique in New York, plus the funkiest moves. The Complexions experience can be relentless - critics often long for a little adagio, but for my money you can't beat the sheer guts and soul these dancers lay over their exquisite training.
Complexions, like Alonzo King's San Francisco-based LINES Ballet (which performed at the Union Theater in 2005), builds big on George Balanchine's legacy. Balanchine never came close to Complexions' diversity. But like Complexions' dual artistic directors, Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, he loved jazz, speed and syncopation.
Complexions is deeply rooted in classical dance, but Rhoden and Richardson explode the ballet box. Both were Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater principals in the late '80s and early '90s. "We started doing pieces outside of Ailey, using our friends," Richardson says. "We wanted to explore different avenues - bring modern and jazz together with the classical training we both have."
Rhoden, a master choreographer, has created works for dozens of the world's best companies, including Ailey, Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Joffrey and Miami City Ballet. Richardson was American Ballet Theatre's first African American principal, in the late '90s. He's hoofed in Broadway dance spectaculars like Fosse and Twyla Tharp's Movin' Out. He's performed with Michael Jackson and Prince. He received a prestigious Dance Magazine award last year, and at 39 he's still Complexions' star dancer, though regrettably he's not performing in the Madison program.
It almost doesn't matter. The company, in its 14th year, has largely replenished its ranks with what Richardson calls "a lovely little crop of new dancers." That's an understatement. The training at the core of Complexions' style makes them extraordinary. In their daily, Complexions-designed contemporary ballet class, movement combinations are done both on and off-center, Richardson says, expanding the range of classical movement.
"We choose to do ballet in-house," he adds, "but we expect our dancers to shop around - to get out there and take class other places, experiment with other forms."
There's a nutritious mix of Complexions' ballet-informed styles on the three-act Madison bill. Acts I and III, large ensemble works both choreographed by Rhoden, take clues from radically distinct scores. The opener, "Dear Frederic," is a deconstructed ode to Chopin. The ending, "Chapters Suite," an excerpt from a work in progress, is set to Marvin Gaye. Richardson calls Act II, with four pieces by Rhoden and one by Ailey dancer Abdur Rahim Jackson, "a showcase of small gems and jewels."
It's like vitamins for dance anemia. You can easily miss the Russian touring-company productions of worn-out 19th-century ballets that tromp through town every year. But you skip Complexions Contemporary Ballet at your own risk.u