Sunday, February 23, 2014

Dance Review: Complexions Contemporary Ballet

by Susan Kepecs
Complexions Contemporary Ballet, at Overture Hall last Wednesday (Feb. 19), drew a large, enthusiastic audience and received a standing ovation at the end. I’m not sure why. The dancing, in general, was technically impressive (though the company’s flight from New York was delayed for hours, thanks to the polar vortex, and I spotted some shaky standing legs on those very muscular but possibly tired dancer bodies).  But overall the performance left me cold; most of the choregraphy was formulaic and earthbound, and the dancers never just took off and ran away with it – there was no sense of simply of dancing for joy. Why dance, then?
Complexions’ artistic director Dwight Rhoden’s 2010 “Moon Over Jupiter” opened the program.  This long, full-company work to a compilation of Rachmaninov’s greatest hits was done in three sections.  Like much “contemporary ballet” the choreography here was ridden with commercial cliches.  Rhoden's piece was built on a classical base that was spiked with non-classical hip / torso moves, floor rollovers, and an incessant barrage of crotch-exposing, wide-open second-position leg action.  Set in semi-darkness, the work featured an ever-shifting series of groups: seven men in unison, five man/woman pairs,  four pairs executing a follow the leader combination, three men in a diagonal line juxtaposed against a pas de deux, mix up a bit and repeat.  I like seeing lots of action onstage, but I got tired of so much relentless technical prowess without any soul to speak of.
“Moon Over Jupiter” was the only one of the three works on the program in which the women were on pointe.  Still, there are no fairylike ballerinas here.  I’m all for revealing every nuance of women’s strengths in ballet, and other choreographers – notably Alonzo King – do so with prodigious sophistication.  But the women in Rhoden’s dance were as dedicated to power poses as the men. Throwing gender stereotypes out the window should be a good idea, but obliterating diversity – and Complexions, after all, is famous for its ethnic diversity – is not.
“Recur” (2013), by Complexions associate artistic director Jae Man Joo, was divided into four parts.  In the first, dimly lit men and women dancing against a black backdrop wore nude-toned tops and black pants – another disturbing approach to de-gendering, in which sexless torsos flailed, swiveled, contracted, twisted, and slouched, hips thrust forward.  There was a stretch without music, accompanied by breath, the squeaks of feet on floor, and an annoying whistle pitched just low enough for people as well as dogs to hear it.  
“Recur”’s second section was a totally different dance, and offered, in fact, the most interesting choreography of the evening.  It was impossible to tell which dancers did what from the minimal program, and I don’t know this company well enough to guess.  But the action was divided between two genderless dancers in large black coulottes, dancing against black, and a very tall, imposing man  silhouetted against a rectangle of white, arms angled, wrists flexed, spidering his fingers.  All three were Buddha-like, and the composition carried a sense of significant ritual. 
The third segment essentially was a recurrence of the first, except the flesh-toned tops were replaced by black ones with white stripes. But the fourth part, like the second, broke the pattern. A sculpturally lit, unabashedly homoerotic duet between two men, naked above the waist and wearing nude-toned pants, this dance avoided being tacky simply by providing the program’s only glimpse of real human drama. 
The evening wrapped up with Rhoden’s “Innervisions” (2013), which, given its Stevie Wonder soundtrack, could have been a real show-stopper.  But it turned out to be just a modern dance Motown imitation.  The shifting groups of dancers from “Moon over Jupiter” returned, though instead of contemporary ballet the work was done in an urban-social vocabulary that involved hip thrusts, rollovers, a silhouetted line of dancers, bits of ballet, some Funky Broadway-esque arms.  The dancers moved on the beat, off the beat, around the beat and double time, but they hardly ever hit the backbeat, which might have set them free. 

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