Complexions dancer Ashley Mayeux | Photo by Rachel Neville | Courtesy of The Music Center

Complexions: Bending the rules and playing it safe

A review of Complexions Contemporary Ballet’s April 2016 performance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, The Music Center, Los Angeles

Complexions Contemporary Ballet knows how to bend the rules of ballet in just the right places, yet played it safe at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in April.

The New York-based dance company headed by Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson presented an array of works from Rhoden’s choreographic repertoire, including the west coast premiere of “Imprint/Maya,” a tribute to African American poet Maya Angelou.

Complexions’ opening “Ballad Unto…” was a courtly affair. Shirtless men and suited women in corset-like bodice leotards paired off into luscious and leggy duets — legs extended to the nth degree, hips swiveled naughtily, heads swooped suggestively through looping limbs and muscles on arms, legs and chests puffed up to their tautest peak.

More impressive than Complexions’ physical finesse was their musical virtuosity. Dancing to the Baroque strains of Bach, they filled every caesura and key change in the music’s complex score with incredible movement. Sinuous body undulations were languid one moment, staccato the next, showcasing the ensemble’s remarkable ability to be both snakelike and statuesque.

The style appears to parallel the double standards of a lavish court life–stiff façades of propriety commingle with sensuous closed-door intrigues, except every thing is out in the open for us to see — every ripple of the rib cage and finger extension.

Yet for all of “Ballad Unto’s…” seemingly suggestive ardor, it lacked a little passion. Couples’ partnering — while effortless — looked a little like it was running on autopilot.

Complexions showed more ferocity in the all-male trio “Gone.” Three ripped and shirtless men vigorously swung their arms in time to an a cappella anthem by Civil Rights activist and vocalist Odetta that sings of hard labor and death on a chain gang. Stretching, jumping and shaking, they dance as if their very lives depended on it, capturing the urgency of the song and injecting a much-needed spike of energy into the program. Kelly Marsh IV, Nehemiah Spencer and Timothy Stickney go off swinging — powerful, macho and undefeated.

“Cryin to Cry Out,” a duet between Young Sil Kim and Terk Lewis Waters, veers into slightly sentimental terrain, but remains affective enough. Set to Jimmy Scott’s jazzy “When Did You Leave Heaven?” the dance has the feel of a smoky piano bar. Kim and Waters are the lone patrons. Yet it’s not until Scott sings, “When did you leave Heaven Angel mine?” that we understand why this couple is dancing at all.

They’re not dancing with each other; they’re dancing with memories, perhaps even ghosts — a hint that’s given to us by the way that the couple, though dancing in unison, never actually faces each other. Separated by a few feet — his back is to her face; her face is to his back — they look like dancing partners uncoupled from their other half. Then the lights fade and Kim drifts away, like a dissolving shadow from the past.

A similarly soulful yearning pulsed through “Testament,” a dance excerpt choreographed to the hymn “Amazing Grace.” But Andrew Brader and Ashley Mayeux’s religious fervor seemed rushed, more rote and rehearsed than spontaneous and passionate. As they pushed and pulled on each other, manipulating each other like puppets on a string, they seemed to be repeating monosyllabic movements, rather than speaking fluidly in Dwight Rhoden’s tongue.

Yet Richardson was a fierce force, performing solo in Rhoden’s “Imprint/Maya.” Closing his hand into a powerful fist, flicking his fingers like feathers, he creates an entire language with his hands. He can say more with the tip of his finger than almost any compilation of human words. Only the mighty Maya Angelou may be able to out-word him, making their pairing a perfect match.

“Innervisions” was probably the least stimulating part of the program, but with songs by Stevie Wonder it was certainly a crowd pleaser — a safe, if not daring conclusion.

Like its dancers’ abilities to bend beyond the limits of the body, Complexions could have pushed itself a little further.

Complexion’s Desmond Richardson | Photo by DAHLEN | Courtesy of The Music Center
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