‘Turn on with me and you’re not alone.
Give me your hands …’
One dancer spins to another, extending toward the milky way, and lifts into the sky. Internationally acclaimed Complexions Contemporary Ballet comes to Jacob’s Pillow this week for the first time — performing an evening of new and recent work and leading up to Star Dust, their tribute to international glam rock icon David Bowie.
When the light comes up, the company are standing backlit, looking out through the mist like tidal rock at dawn. They are that visceral, that muscular and bare and imbued with living force.
They are that visceral, that muscular and bare and imbued with living force. This is ballet without borders.
This is ballet without borders. The Pillow has brought beautiful work here this summer, examining and challenging visions of the future of the art — Dutch Natinal Ballet made me wonder where ballet could go if the form kept all of its strength and let go of all its unnecessary limitations.
Complexions is already there. They are exploring their bodies and their art with precision, deep knowledge and technique. In this company, dancers can come from anywhere, in any body, and be who they are — all they need are the height of skill, expression and integrity.
“Be honest. Be real in the moment,” says Pillow scholar in reidence Janine Parker, artist in ballet at Williams College. She is quoting the legendary Alvin Ailey — Complexion’s founding co-artistic directors Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, draw on a strong influence from him and his work.
They met through his company, where they have both performed, among many other internationally recognized companies. Richardson is also a widely acclaimed teacher and choreographer on film and Broadway. Rhoden serves as Complexions’ principal choreographer, sought after around the world.
Tonight they make a pas de deux a partnership. When one person balances on the most precise possible point and turns, they are orbiting, they are generating their own centripetal force, and a friend, offers their hands in guideance.
We can be heroes
Complexion’s founding co-artistic directors, Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, have created work and won recognition around the world.
Dwight Rhoden serves as Complexions’ principal choreographer, as he has since 1994, says Pillow artistic director Pamela Tatge, and he is sought after around the world — he has performed with Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, among many national and international roles.
Desmond Richardson the first African-American principal of the American Ballet Theatre, and many more. He has a long legacy on Broadway and in music and film, and he is known nationally and beyond as a teacher of dance, including here.
This is not the grande pas classique choreography that confines a woman in place while a man takes agency. When Chloe Duryea and Miguel Solano perform together, she moves with decisive purpose. They move together, choosing direction across the whole of the stage. When he lifts her, she turns to him and gives consent and holds her own weight. A lift becomes an embrace.
That kind of equality and open-minded friendship moves through the whole group. They touch each other, and they see each other. This is ballet without bias. The dancers move close in tunics and leggings, some the color of their skin and almost invisible, some bright, abstract and asymetric.
In the opening they bring flowing rapid movement to sustained chords, but through most of the evening the dancers and choreograpy are deeply attuned to the rhythm and melody of the music.
Jillian Davis performs in Elegy and Joe González and the company perform on Stardust. Photos by Cherylynn Tsushima and Jamie Kraus
Even Bach and Beethoven gain a foothold in the 21st-century — the Moonlight Sonata takes on the resonance of rock organ over a timpany heartbeat and shaers a kinship with Tye Tribbett’s Work It Out Live.
Jillian Davis performs Elegy solo with aching rigor. Rhoden and Richardson created this work in 2020, in the pandemic, in memory of their mothers, who died eight months apart, and Davis has the courage to encompass the isolation of the pandemic, to stand up to pressure on the limits of the body until it takes a feat of balance to keep upright.
And then the curtain lifts on the second half, and they’ve transformed. They’re here for David Bowie in gold and spangles and lightening facepaint in homage to Ziggy Stardust. Bowie created the character of a being from another planet who sees humans making earth uninhabitable.
Look up here — I’m in heaven.
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen,
I’ve got drama that can’t be stolen,
everybody knows me now …
Joe Gonzalez is lip-syncing to Lazarus, resplendent in silver, and the lighting patterns the stage like an optical illusion, an M.C. Escher disco ball.
In each song a soloist takes the focus, walking in to take charge of the invisible mic and leaning on the stage wall with the audience in their hands. They curve into space as dancers launch around them, and the company hones skill and precision into velocity — not into formality, into expression.
Kobe Atwood Courtney lifts off en pointe as Major Tom, calling to ground control.
I’m stepping through the door
and I’m floating in a most peculiar way,
and the stars look very different today …
And Davis arcs into space, calling back. They’re embodying rock songs with the flair of a dance party and an edge of sadness, an understanding of loneliness. The singer behind the movement wants love with honesty.
So I turned myself to face me …
They’re open in the moment. The company is leaping around them, spinning fast, lifting a foot to eye level, trust falling and holding each other, lifting each other up, and the singer is looking into the audience in a world that tells them they shouldn’t be here and saying I am. I belong.
I’m going to be high on this show for days. It feels like the best kind of 3 a.m. conversation in a college dorm room, which for me is a natural high on its own, the high of people being creatively alive together.
‘So I turned myself to face me …’ — David Bowie
When you’re immersed in something you love — when you’ve done something for years, you’ve worked and stretched and poured yourself into it, your mind and body come together and you know it as well as you know an old friend — you have the experience, and you can go deeper.
There’s a living force, force vive, the French physicist Emelie du Chatelet defined as the energy in a moving body that would never run out. She and Leibnitz laid the groundwork for an understanding of kinetic energy, the energy of a body in motion. The Complexions dancers are playing with it like lightening, and God, they’re glorious.
Joe Gonzalez and Complexions perform in Stardust. Photos by Cherylynn Tsushima and Jamie Kraus