‘Woke’: Complexions’ 25th Anniversary at The Joyce

Words by Morgan Rose Beckwith | images by Steven Pisano

Sustaining a dance company in New York City for twenty-five years is an enormous feat worth celebrating. Complexions Contemporary Ballet began with three sold out nights at Symphony space in 1994 and now, the company has just closed a two-week, 25th anniversary run at the Joyce Theater, featuring a compilation of older repertoire and two premieres: Bach 25 and Woke.  

Complexions was an early proponent of hiring a diverse group of dancers and expanded the way in which ballet technique was used in concert dance. Dwight Roden, co-artistic director, cited his and Desmond Richardson’s commitment and passion for diversity in both dancers and choreography as the main staying power of the company. Over the years the pair have brought their brand of contemporary ballet to numerous national and international audiences and established intensive teaching programs in six different US cities. They have received criticism from traditionalists for some of their more commercializing approaches to ballet such as their ballet tribute to David Bowie or the self-proclaimed patenting of their dance method “NIQUE.” Is this what bringing ballet into the 21st century looks like?

In her 2011 encyclopedic history of ballet, Apollo’s Angels, Jennifer Homans wrote, “the rules, limits, and rituals of ballet have been the point of departure for its most liberating and iconoclastic achievements,” but that in the 21st century dance landscape the language of ballet is dying. Many saw Homans’ proclamation as a call to action for the ballet community. Complexions has been finding new ways to interpret and manipulate classical ballet technique for twenty-five years, often incorporating contemporary music and cultural references into their repertoire. They have taken up Homans’ mantel by creating something that is a clear departure from the classical ballet company, while still using ballet as their medium of expression.

Complexions has consistently brought a type of dynamism and versatility to the stage that is compelling and current; but at times, the quality of the choreographic voice is lacking. Dwight Rhoden’s new ballet Woke is an example of a tendency to rely on high energy and flashy movement to engage the audience. However, there is a world of potential amongst the crammed and overstimulated choreography in this piece. The pairing of ballet with the music of Kendrick Lamar and Logic is a thrillingly potent concept, but Rhoden barely gave the audience a chance to associate steps or moments of artistic intensity within the context of the piece before jumping into the next battement or impressive lift. Moments when the dancers dragged the lifeless bodies of their fellow dancers off stage to the song Killing Spree or when Larissa Gerszke’s stared at her partner in the piece’s second section, would have been sublime had they been given room to breathe and resonate. With some editing, Woke could forge a lasting connection between the rigor and ritual of ballet, the draw of contemporary music, and the social and political climate. I applaud Rhoden’s attempt to tackle such critical issues with contemporary ballet–it is clear the audience also approved on the evening of March 1st, giving the dancers an enthusiastic standing ovation at the conclusion of the piece.

As Complexions continues its legacy and moves toward their goal of establishing a permanent home, I hope they will foster more subtlety in their choreography so it allows the incredible talent and vision they have cultivated in the last twenty-five years to speak for itself. I look forward to seeing how Complexions continues to bridge the gap between classical ballet technique and the restlessness of the 21st-century audience, just as they speak their truth.

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