By Walter Rutledge
Complexions Contemporary Ballet held their 20th anniversary gala performance Thursday, November 20 at the Joyce Theater. I believe galas should not be held under the same critical scrutiny as a regular season performance; these events have a different focus. Galas acknowledge company milestones such as dancers transitioning, directors passing the torch, season openings and in this case celebrating the company’s 20th anniversary.
Gala programs are usually abridged performances; augmented by lofty speeches by company hierarchy and entertainment personalities, and then interspersed with stellar dancing by guest artists. After brief pre-performance greeting by co-founders Desmond Richardson and Dwight Rhoden and gala host Phylicia Rashad the company presented a full evening of dance. The cohesive mix of pomp and performance honored the company’s longevity while satisfying their loyal arts community following. The sold out event was a fitting retrospective of a company fulfilling their artistic vision.
The opening work Head Space (world premiere) exemplified Rhodens signature style. The amalgam of different dance disciples, use of abstract themes with dramatic undertones and interpreting the music through the entire body has become his movement cornerstone. The work showcased his choreographic prowess and steadfast commitment to his own unique vision. Dancer Terk Waters is a standout he has grown with each season. Also worth noting is Kevin Tate, he has an innate stage quality that makes you look at him.
An unexpected highlight was a special performance of Head Space by students of the New Orleans Ballet Association Center for Dance. The group of young performers were well rehearsed and performed Rhoden’s intricate work with surprising precision. Kudos to Aline De Souza and Donald Williams who coached and rehearsed the ensemble, their diligence and attention to detail was evident.
Jeraldyne Blunden, the Artistic Director and Founder of Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, had first alerted me to Dwight Rhoden’s choreographic aspirations. When I became a curator for the Thelma Hill Performing Arts Center (THPAC) in the 1990’s I finally got an opportunity to see Rhoden’s work. THPAC Artistic Director Melvin Davis had inherited the organization after the death of Larry Phillips. He (like the present Executive Chairman Alex Smith Jr.) had an uncanny eye for identifying new and innovative emerging artists.
Davis asked me to see a new company that he wanted to present. They were planning their first performance at Symphony Space in June and were in rehearsal. I don’t remember where the rehearsal was but I do remember climbing the stairs to a small studio somewhere in Manhattan. Dwight Rhoden was seated on a chair with his back to the mirror. I introduced myself and after a personable, but brief greeting he continued rehearsing.
He had that young choreographer energy- an exuberant conviction for the work. The dance had a “post Ulysses Dove” feel to it; but their was a passion and glimmers of movements that were truly his own. It was clear Rhoden already possessed that Svengali like quality choreographers need to get dancers to follow them- to believe in their vision and to trust. Later I telephoned to inform them we would like to feature Complexions in an upcoming series and I can recall the excitement in Desmond’s voice.
Ave Maria choreographed in 1995 still captures the passion and exuberance of that time in Rhoden’s career. There is a visual simplicity and sculptural consistency throughout the work that compliments the subtle majesty of the music. Misty Copeland and Clifford Williams danced with the needed commitment and technique to produce Rhoden’s intended “wow factor”. But it goes beyond the performers here it really was about the dance.
I wish choreographers who have large bodies of work would go back and present their earlier dances. Sometimes what they may lack in invention is surpassed by their innovation. For many it was a time before galas and the need for constant fund-raising. When the focus was simply on making dances- it was also a time when Terpsichore literally rested her hands on their shoulders. This is place were the audience will gratefully follow; believe in the vision and trust.
Complexions Contemporary Ballet’s Joyce season continues through November 30. For ticket and program information visit joyce.org.