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Ballet bust-up: Complexions dance company.

Explosive Moves
By Mae G. Banner

The Egg, Nov. 19

Desmond Richardson and Nina Simone created meteor showers that flashed and exploded throughout the Complexions dance concert last Friday at the Egg. The living dancer and the late and legendary singer almost seemed to be feeding off each other, with Simone’s soul-wrenching voice pushing Richardson to the far reaches of his boundless emotion and power.

Richardson, a glorious dancer with muscles like black marble, makes you believe he is the first dancer on earth. Costumed in a brief red tunic, quivering and twisting in Dwight Rhoden’s African-based choreography to Simone’s “So Low,” Richardson pressed the limits of movement. He danced barefoot, rising to his toes and stamping down like an ancient king, translating Simone’s utter earthiness to physical calligraphy that involved even his fingertips.

Rhoden has called Richardson his muse. Both veterans of the Alvin Ailey company, they moved on in 1994 to found Complexions. They gathered a few talented friends—dancers who were also musicians, costumers, designers and poets—with the aim of taking dance a step further and showing off the many dimensions of their original work.

They had instant success. The company has grown from half-a-dozen founding members to 20. By the cofounders’ design, the company is multiracial and multinational. When you see them on stage, though, they are more alike than different. They all dance with the in-your-face attitude of Ailey dancers, while Rhoden’s choreography also is influenced by the push-me, pull-you extremities of William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt.

The Ailey sass and the Forsythe anger suffused I’m Gonna Leave You, a duet for Edward Franklin and Heather Hamilton, which they danced at the heart of Pretty Gritty Suite, set to 11 blues and jazz standards sung by Simone. It was a duet as duel, marked by kicking, spanking and hair pulling—all with a jazzy swing.

Simone was an empress who could treat a blues as an art song or a novelty number as a call to arms. Rhoden chose from Simone’s great range in Pretty Gritty Suite, including a devilish “I Put a Spell on You” for an androgynous male and two strong women; a witty, jukin’ “Gimme Some” for a grinding, hunched-over male quartet; and “Mood Indigo” as an adagio ballet for Alicia Graf and Brian Chung.

The suite encompassed romance, anger, despair, racial pride, and a golden-lit full-company finale whose long diagonal structure reminded me of “Rock-a My Soul,” which was Ailey’s rafter-ringing finale for his Revelations.

Pretty Gritty was the last and most fulfilling part of Complexions’ very full program because it displayed these top-of-the-line dancers in a full spectrum of moods and rhythms and in combinations from duets to the full-shot finale.

Rhoden’s touch was less sure in Red/The Force, a full-company mishmash that opened the program. Red is part of a three-act ballet, Anthem, that expresses Rhoden’s views of the United States and how our country is seen by others, especially after our post-Sept. 11 aggression in Iraq.

It’s a worthy subject, but the choreographer has a lot of editing to do if he wants to make his meaning plain. The leading dancers, including Richardson (substituting for Chung) and Hamilton are obscured by the clutter of a too-large, too-busy corps.

Richardson’s moving and triumphant So Low was part of a smaller-scale sampling of excerpts from Rhoden works over the past three years. Again, the choreographer seems to be eager to show us everything he’s got, all in one program. Unlike the crowded madness of Red, these duets, trios and quartets were gems.

Music ranged from J.S. Bach to Annie Lennox. The action was full of sudden contrasts, from slow and liquid passages to frenetic, fractured moves, always with that undertone of violence imported from Ballet Frankfurt. We’re talking love as combat; ballet with a kick.

Sarita Allen and Franklin, both long-time Ailey dancers, performed a poisonous Sweet Low Rise to the singing of Simone. She raises a knee; he pushes it down. She falls backward into his arms and he travels, so she has skitter her feet to keep up. It’s killer dancing that leaves the audience limp.

The women of Complexions can raise one leg alongside their ear to describe six o’clock. The men can fall into a double backward somersault and rise again in a single elastic move. Everyone can jump ceiling high and suspend in the air with their legs in a full split. Really, Rhoden and his dancers approach ballet as extreme sport, rough, but beautiful.


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