The Complexion of the times

Bach, Bowie, and Maya Angelou: White Bird kicks off its 20th season of dance with the contemporary ballet company Complexions

The mood was festive in the Newmark Theatre in downtown Portland Thursday night: a new White Bird dance season was beginning, and Complexions Contemporary Ballet was in the house. The lobbies were bump-into-you bustling, the seats were almost all filled in, and though the jeans and casual shirts that so define Portland sartorial style were on plentiful display among the audience, plenty of fine plumage was on show, too. Dressed up or dressed down, the crowd was pumped to get this thing going again.

White Bird was embarking on its 20th season of presenting contemporary dance from around the world to Portland audiences (Thursday night’s program repeats Friday and Saturday), and Complexions, which was founded in 1994 by a pair of Alvin Ailey dancers, was on the program for the first time since 2009. It was, all in all, a welcome return.

The company, in “Star Dust” mode. Photo courtesy White Bird

All three works on Thursday’s program were choreographed by Dwight Rhoden, who founded Complexions with Desmond Richardson, and though the influences range from the purely balletic to jazz and hip hop and the theatrics of the arena rock ‘n’ roll stage, and the movements are often distinguished by a contemporary, deliberately awkward elegance, they are also classical in their centered balances and line.

Rhoden strikes me as a choreographer whose movements respond closely to the music. While you might think that’s a given – isn’t that what dance does? – it’s not always evident: contemporary dance is populated by a lot of works in which the movement and music seem to inhabit separate planes, meeting almost incidentally. That doesn’t mean Rhoden’s dances echo the music. They respond to it, and the response can seem counter, an opposite or sideways or even argumentative reaction, but it is always closely attuned to what the composer’s thinking and doing.

That seems clear in the evening’s opening piece, Ballad Unto …, a lengthy choreographic conversation with the recorded music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Danced by seven men and seven women who are largely paired off, it begins and ends in brief silence that emphasizes the defining force of the music. Ballad Unto … recognizes the strict and simple structure of Bach’s music, and also finds contemporary companionship in its restless, can’t-stay-here flow. The dancers are like living notes on sheet music, all angular and rushing and Baroque, often contorted but inhabiting the essence of the music from a 21st century perspective. There is toe work and a lot of seesawing – that squatting stance with the hips scissored out and knees bent and calves turned back inward so the musculature of the thigh is emphasized, and everything is elevated en pointe – and much falling almost out of balance before pulling back in, as if navigating a modern world in nervously erratic spin. Once the music starts it does not pause. It is elegantly relentless, flowing like a swift stream, with occasional small waterfalls and plenty of rapids. Though the dancers are paired off the work doesn’t seem to be in the slightest about sexuality or romance. The effect is cool and a little distant. The movement is almost mathematical in its reaction to the structure of the music, although it’s a high-level math, up there someplace where the computations and the beauty meet. And if it seems to go on a little longer than necessary, well, a mathematical proof can sprawl for ages across a blackboard.

Ballad Unto … is followed before intermission by Imprint Maya, Rhoden’s short solo for Complexions’ cofounder, the superb and fluid dancer Desmond Richardson. Performed to vocalist Melanie Nyema’s rich and moving recorded rendition of David Rozenblatt’s musical setting from Maya Angelou’s poem My Guilt, it’s a quietly intense and almost jointless fusion of sight and sound and emotion – a reverie, but a reverie that never lets loose of the despair of history and its continuing hold on both the inner and the outer life: “My guilt is slavery’s chains.” “My crime is heroes dead and gone.” “My sin is hanging from a tree.” “My crime is I’m alive to tell.” Astonishing that the music and words and Richardson’s movement somehow transform from dread and horror into a kind of balm. This work, with its cold clear vision of “these days of bloody screaming” and its corresponding, improbable sense of grace, is for me the highlight of the evening.

Complexions dancer Sergio Arranz Vallejo. Photo: Ani Collier

After intermission came Star Dust, the company’s tribute to David Bowie that had its premiere in May 2016, just months after the singer’s death. Bowie’s art seems first and foremost theatrical, not only an invention of the self but also an invention of entire shifting worlds, of universes of imagined shape and thought, brought down to the lights and noises and choreographed melodrama of the arena stage. Bowie’s voice and personae were memorable and intimate and also elusive: otherworldly; shrinking away as they seemed to embrace you, unobtainable, ultimately private in a very public way. He had the kind of star quality that made millions of people who had never met him genuinely grieve his death: the intimate, beloved stranger.

Star Dust is set to nine well-known Bowie songs – Lazarus, Changes, Life on Mars, Space Oddity, 1984, Heroes, Modern Love, Rock and Roll Suicide, and Young Americans – and even though it celebrates a singular hero it seems, like Ballad Unto …, a piece composed for the entire company. There is some lip-synching and rock-star posturing and some spectacular individual performances (there’s a wonderfully inventive woman dancer, the tallest dancer in the company; and a long lean male dancer who, when he strides on point across the stage like a satyr sidling on cloven hooves, seems to rise a full three feet above his ordinary height) but this is a piece for everyone. And it’s important to note that it’s not an attempt to be Bowie: No one but Bowie could do that. It’s an evocation of his presence and art, a tribute, a restatement and commentary in a slightly related language. That seemed enough for the audience, which sprang to its collective feet.

A word about the company’s name, Complexions. It’s entirely appropriate: the company is made up of dancers from African, Asian, and European biological backgrounds, and the various genetic recombinations thereof. And in the world of dance, in which ballet in particular has been frustratingly slow to integrate its companies into the way the world actually looks, it’s telling that it has to be pointed out, too. And yet it does. Watching this talented company of dancers work together seems as natural as breathing, simply a reflection of the way the world ought to be, and increasingly often is, at least in its urban centers. This is the future, and embracing it seems only natural and common sense. Then again, that’s part of what our most recent national election was about, isn’t it?


Complexions repeats its White Bird program at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 6-7, in the Newmark Theatre. Ticket information here. Next up: the return of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, also in the Newmark, Oct. 12-14.


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