Complexions Contemporary Ballet & Lula Washington Dance Theater at the Ford Theater

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It was difficult to talk any of my local friends into going with me to see Complexions Contemporary Ballet and Lula Washington Dance Theater perform last Saturday at the Ford Theater in Hollywood.  Not because they weren’t interested, but everyone was either out of town, working, or already committed to another show.  Likewise it was difficult just getting into the venue, with typical LA traffic and terrifying stack parking on a Hollywood Hills bluff. Once we (I coerced my husband in the end) were in our seats, however, I imagined that the difficulties of the evening were past us.  I was wrong.

This production was part of the Zev Yaroslavky Signature Series from the LA County Arts Commission, whose aim is to pair local artistic talent with seasoned performers.  This concept has the potential to provide wonderful exposure for local companies, but it also has the potential downside of shedding light on their shortfalls.  This past Saturday’s production did a little bit of both for LA-based Lula Washington’s Dance Theater.  As the troupe’s four long pieces stretched on through the first act, I found myself once again having difficulty…difficulty staying engaged.

To say the programming should have been cut down is an understatement.  While the dancers brought an unbridled enthusiasm to each piece, the choreography became redundant.  The concepts behind much of the work relied heavily on clichés (such as a competitive love triangle or an ode to the 1960’s decked out in bell bottoms and flower children) and the movement failed to explore or communicate anything new. The dated material was further accentuated by the technical shortfalls of many of the dancers.  Small things, like sickled feet and a failure of fifth positions when coming down from brisés or sissonnes, piled on and added to the lack of polish. They often weren’t dancing in unison, with just the slightest variances in phrasing and lines, which was also distracting from the actual movement.  However, what they lacked in precision they attempted to make up for in passion.

The one stand-out piece from the first act was Lulu Washington’s 2007 work, We Wore the Mask, based on the poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar.  For this piece, drummer Marcus L. Miller took to the stage and proceeded to bang out a series of rhythms and percussions that both fueled and played off the dancers movements.  The piece began with Queala Clancy dancing a compelling solo wearing a mask of a bedraggled, old woman.  By the end, she managed to rip the mask from her face and reveal her own true beauty.  This led into a series of progressions from three women and four men, weaving on and off the stage with a motif of the different faces – the different masks – they are forced to wear.  It was by far the most developed and engaging piece from the company.  If the evening had opened with this work, it would have had a much stronger impact and a smoother segue into Complexions Contemporary Ballet.

Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson’s Complexions Contemporary Ballet comprised the second act. The mood changed instantly as the company took to the stage with precision, gorgeous extensions, and technical attack.

The Curve, set to excerpted sounds and manipulated samples of rhythms, showcased their stunning athleticism and form. The company, which is diverse in height and body type, moved together like a living organism. Every line, and every extension stretched to its absolute maximum, before sharply snapping back into staccato steps of a petite allegro.   Even on the tiny Ford stage (which also has no wings and is segmented into cement platforms) they managed to fill every space with a kind of subtle expansiveness that was thrilling to watch—neo-classical ballet at its best.

This was followed by a series of solos and pas de deuxs that beautifully demonstrated the complexity of Complexions, beginning with an excerpt from 1991’s Moonlight, danced by Desmond Richardson himself.  Not only did the piece highlight the Adonis-like physique and technical perfection of this legendary dancer; it was also hauntingly intimate, as Richardson danced, bare-chested with a bouquet of red roses and a single chair.  It felt as though we were voyeuristically intruding on something innately sensual, frustrating, and personal.

This was followed by a beautiful pas de deux set to “Amazing Grace,” performed by Kelly Sneddon and Terk Waters.  Filled with swooping lifts and gentle partnering, Waters’ long limbs were other-worldly as he and Sneddon glided around the stage together.  Choke immediately followed, and shifted us into the spritely spirit of classic Vivaldi.  Kris Nobles and Clifford Williams were perfectly matched in a give-and-take of technical prowess.  Both men were as powerful as they were flexible in this technically impeccable piece.

The duet was followed by the most moving piece of the evening, an excerpt from 2010’s On Holiday danced by Christina Dooling and Edgar Anido.  In an ambivalent pas de deux exploring a tumultuous love affair—a topic that has the potential to be trite in dance—Rhoden’s choreography was refreshingly distinct.  The complex emotions of the subtext were subtly portrayed with unique and powerful partnering – unusual lifts that found striking angles.  Dooling’s dynamic and powerful technique allowed her to throw herself completely into the movement and emotion of the moment.  This was her final performance with Complexions and I am beyond grateful that I got a chance to see her perform.

The evening finished with two large group numbers, the first set to Stevie Wonder’s Another Star, and the second a medley of songs from U2.  Total crowd-pleasers, yet not lacking in innovative choreography and technique, the series of U2 songs further explored the theatrical range of Complexions.  It was a strong cocktail of commercial dance, theater and classical ballet perfectly shaken and stirred.  Once again Christina Dooling’s energy and attack shined, and the evening concluded with a resounding feeling of enthusiasm from the sold-out amphitheater.

While it is somewhat difficult to not impose one’s own pre-determined feelings about a piece of pop-music when watching dance—my husband and I may be the only people on the planet who do not like U2, but there you have it—Complexions navigates the waters of contemporary performance well, by demolishing any preconceived regulations.  Their work is simultaneously fluid and border shattering,  resulting in a paradox that is completely organic. In the end, the initial difficulties of the evening made this rare west-coast performance all the more memorable.

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