The Complexions Contemporary Ballet performance at the Music Center on Friday offered a broad range of music as a backdrop to an evening devoted to Dwight Rhoden’s choreography. But more often than not, the choreography, for all its energy and hyper-inventiveness, missed making any real connections with the pieces at hand, or illuminating the music in ways that were unexpected.
Opening with “Ballad Unto…” (2015) Rhoden worked an old trope of sexy, modern movement pitted against antique Baroque chamber works by Bach. Billed as a “sprawling and emotional abstract of love” it sprawled as predicted but the dancing looked more like mutual battering laced with an aggressive, posey body builder’s narcissism than love of any sort. The dancers come and go without much rhyme or reason, and the most obvious connection to the music remained the perfunctory mirroring of obvious accents and stopping and starting as the musical sections shifted. The women looked fierce on pointe and the men, who were sure partners, lifted mightily throughout, but you couldn’t get by the overriding emptiness of the movement, a kind of faux classicism of “stuff” laid out more for effect than meaning. There were two good choreographic inventions, the seething scrum of dancers in the finale and the flashing entrances made through the back of the stage. The first was used sparingly while the second wore thin with overuse and a handful of muffed exits.
The best of it was a brief pas de deux with Youngsil Kim and Addison Ector which briefly ignited in something like the promised love fest. The conclusion, set against the iconic Chaconne from the D Minor Partita for solo violin, felt ill used, more like an anticlimax than a summation. All the music, recorded chamber works for solo instruments, played at aggressively loud levels that dulled the possibility of intimacy.
Closing the program was “Innervisions” (2013), a flat romp based on the music of Stevie Wonder. Charged with frantic running exits and entrances, and a review type presentation, it delivered a good time and some feel good “Wonder” moments but little else. Rhoden’s ballet moves seemed as incongruously fitted to the pop icon’s music as they were to the Baroque music that opened the evening. Musically, the repeated fade outs and edited endings eclipsed any sense of a story or a purposeful arc. The music played, the dancers danced, and at the end were left swirling in silence as the curtain came down. It wasn’t so much an ending as an admission the work had no real destination.
Rhoden and company seemed more at home in the program’s second act, a suite of five short works that included music by the folksinger Odetta, the rarefied torch singer Little Jimmy Scott, poet Maya Angelou, and a gospel choir. Those intimate pieces channeled the pathways of Ailey and delivered American stories with a dose of honesty, especially the opening work (Odetta’s Another Man Done Gone, a hope- shattering scenario of incarceration) which was movingly danced by the trio of Kelly Marsh IV, Nehemiah Spencer, and Timothy Stickney. Incongruously positioned in the middle of that suite of American music and narratives was the duo for two men, Choke, a kind of dance off, set to an excerpted movement of Summer from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
Complexions lives up to the double edged meanings in its name. They look like the American multi-cultural story, beautiful people going to town with complex dance in a variety of contexts. There should be more companies like them. We hear the American music and the American stories. We see the cribbed moves from James Brown, Bob Fosse, the footwork of the street, and the repurposed classicism, but none of it takes root and grows. In the end, Rhoden’s dance somehow defies an identifiable sense of place. What it does seem to embrace is the commoditization of an American company and movement designed to sell. The Music Center audience responded to that on Friday with an appreciation not so much of deep meaning, but of deep entertainment. Maybe not exactly the America we had hoped for from a groundbreaking American company, but the one we saw.
(The reviewed performance took place Friday April 15, 2016 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Performances continue through Sunday. All the music was prerecorded. The keyboard and violin performances for “Ballad Unto..” were uncredited in the program. Complexions is directed by Desmond Richardson)