Complexions Contemporary Ballet: Snatching Us Back to Reality

For many dance companies across the nation, the coming of fall this year brings more than cool breezes and changing leaves. It marks the long-awaited return to the stage that has been dark – the end of an intermission lasting over a year in duration. For companies like Complexions Contemporary Ballet, as the summer swelter fades, the performance season is just heating up.

On Tuesday, November 16, the curtain of the Joyce Theater rose on Complexions Contemporary Ballet, the award-winning dance company known for blending technical ballet foundations, innovative choreography, and mesmerizing feats with artistic expression into a brand of dance uniquely its own. Founded by Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, Complexions strives to bring fresh perspectives to dance styles steeped in the ballet tradition. With multidimensional performances like this one, it is no surprise that Complexions is blazing a new path in the dance world, one that cannot be confined to a singularity, as portrayed by the diversity of the company.

On display Tuesday night was an electric program filled with power, beauty, and hope. It featured two distinct works, which divided the performance into two acts. Opening the show was Rhoden’s world premiere, “Snatched Back from the Edges.” Originally intended as a dance film, “Snatched Back from the Edges” has been skillfully and artistically remastered for the stage, to connect with people directly. The second act featured “Love Rocks,” a work that was created last year and is making a bold return this season as an audience favorite.

Company by Steven Pisano

“‘Snatched Back from the Edges’ is meant to be a chronicle of the human spirit with all of its vulnerabilities,” says Rhoden. Set to a soundscape comprised of music by Beethoven, Jon Batiste, Shirley Caesar, Tye Tribbett, Jessye Norman, Le’Andria Johnson, and Aloe Blacc with hauntingly ethereal lighting, Rhoden says that the piece “celebrates the strength and resilience” of humanity. In an enthralling display of human interaction, the work features solos, partnering, and ensemble work, creating layers of movement that build upon and play off of one another. In the piece, Rhoden plays with timing and rhythm, capturing moments of stillness between segments of fast-paced motion. Breathtaking lifts, technical excellence, and abundant expressive capacity take center stage in this new work.

 At times, dancers take the stage alone, emphasizing their strengths as individuals. In a solo to an evocative rendition of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” dancer Larissa Gerszke moves swiftly through sequences of precise and staccato footwork, mixed with a few more contemporary contractions and releases. As her feet still and her upper body contracts at the conclusion of her solo, she is swept off her feet by a fellow dancer. In a particularly captivating duet, dancers Jillian Davis (ABE covergirl Issue 10) and Jarrett Reimers move with ease and fluidity around one another, testing each other’s balance, yet always counterbalancing in support of one another. Each allows the other to move beyond their own capacity, underscoring themes of trust and celebration of the power of people working together. The duet showcases beautifully extended lines – développés and arabesques through fluid transitions – coupled with high levels of control and stability.

 

Larissa Gerske and Brandon Gray by Rachel Neville
Tatiana Melendez & Vincenzo Di Primo by Justin Chao

With gorgeous long lines and commanding height, the pair exudes a regal quality throughout the diaphanous movement. Fluid as water and as if floating on air, their choreography involves extensions in all directions. As the dancers elongate their limbs gingerly through space, articulating fully through the tips of the toes or fingers, the eye is drawn to the action, following it to its conclusion. Their presence is powerful, yet not overpowering – grounded, yet graceful.

Another section features the partnership between Thomas Dilley and Tatiana Melendez. In contrast to the leisurely extensions of Davis and Reimers, this duet follows a quicker pace with a rapid succession of movement. It is sharp and hard-hitting, and acrobatic in nature. While Davis and Reimers create beautiful lines with their feet on the ground, Dilley and Melendez dance together with intense clarity, slicing through the air with elegant shapes.

The second half of the program was “Love Rocks,” set to music by Lenny Kravitz, “the iconic Grammy Award winning singer, producer and songwriter,” that celebrates Kravitz’ “passionate storytelling through edgy, athletic, and theatrical movement.” In this concert dance meets rock-concert production celebrating music and dance, Rhoden portrays ballet and contemporary like you’ve never seen them. Throughout the piece, the company remains true to its inimitable style basked in fearlessness, edginess, and enchanting allure. The soloist, Tim Stickney, takes us through each vignette with his mature performance and musicality. In one section of “Love Rocks,” several dancers perform feats of great strength as they lift one dancer after another, creating the illusion of soaring through the air. Vincenzo Di Primo completes a pirouette, landing on a dime, before appearing weightless as the other dancers lift him toward the sky. This lift is just one of many in this section, and audience members would do well not to blink or look away and risk missing these glorious moments throughout the work. The dancing is reactive and highly emotive. Movement of one dancer initiates a response from others, leading to an incessant stream of motion and continual exchange of energy.

Company by Justin Chao

The works seem to offer a metaphorically cathartic release of energy stored throughout the pandemic in the absence of live performance. The dancing throughout the program is vibrant and electrifying. Davis describes the program as “visceral, raw, physical” and “a roller coaster ride from start to finish.” She hopes audiences will “come and experience the work and let it take you on a ride.” Whether the stage is covered with dancers or singularly occupied, the dancing fills the space and commands attention. Underlying the specifics of each piece is a broader theme of celebration – celebration of the company’s 27-year history, of the return of the performing arts, and of humanity. According to Di Primo, featured in “Love Rocks,” the cast is “hungry to be back on stage again,” noting “there is a bit of adrenaline, too.” Davis also mentions “the adrenaline rush” of performing and explains that “there is nothing quite like the feeling of being onstage in front of the audience.” In her words, “excited is an understatement” to describe how the cast feels about dancing for the public once again. Between the dancers’ attitudes and the energetic nature of the works themselves, the performance delivers a high-energy, provocative, and exhilarating night of dance.

 

 

Vincenzo Di Primo by Rachel Neville

Tonight’s performance reinforced Complexions’ brand as a leader in the world of contemporary ballet. Davis affirms that Rhoden is “always looking forward to the future and what it could be.” With that mindset, the world can only watch as Complexions Contemporary Ballet dances on, with all the strength, grace, boldness, and integrity that the company embodied tonight.

Tonight’s performers also included Emma Branson, Christian Burse, Jacopo Calvo, Brandon Gray, Terrance Matthews, Simon Plant, Zion Pradier, Jasmine Robinson, Miguel Solano, Eriko Sugimura, Candy Tong, and April Watson. 

Following the Joyce Theater premiere, the Complexions Contemporary Ballet will grace the stages of Israel, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, South Carolina, New Mexico, Colorado, Florida, California, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Oregon, before wrapping up its tour on the West coast in Washington. Catch them if you can. For a full performance schedule see: https://www.complexionsdance.org/copy-of-performances

 

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Dancers Amplified Launches Podcast and Blog

Who: Dancers Amplified, a global alliance of dance professionals in activism

What: Launch of “Empower” online platforms

When: April

Where: Online – dancersamplified.com

APRIL 2021 — Dancers Amplified, a global alliance of dance professionals in activism, builds virtual platforms to empower dancers and elevate new creative content.

Dancers Amplified is the first to bring dancers in activism together on such an ambitious worldwide scale—from the Netherlands to Austria to Brazil to the US—giving a collective voice to dancers who have historically been silenced.

Initiated by a core group of artists, dance scholars, and industry professionals across the world, the alliance represents a growing international roster of dancers from ballet companies big and small, freelance artists, and interdisciplinary creatives.

Dancers Amplified’s podcast series opens up conversations on racism and discrimination within the dance and art community. Its first episode welcomed Bejart Ballet Lausanne dancer Leroy Mokgatle in discussion about constructing more inclusive dance spaces. In addition to open and thoughtful dialogue between dancers, the podcast will also host master class episodes where artists can directly share their craft and practices.

Black Voices in Dance, a partner blog, serves as a written platform through which artists from the DA network can share their individual experiences. Blog writer Kara Roseborough shares, “If you’re like me, and you see that this dance world we love so much is crumbling under its own hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness, I encourage you to embrace the truth […] let’s make beautiful, disruptive, unapologetic, anti-racist noise as the Black voices in dance.”

Dancers Amplified is building The Amplified Network, an international web of artist connections. Members of The Amplified Network, within their companies and spheres, will motivate anti-racist behaviors and advocate for equitable procedures. Valuing collective strength and channels of discussion, Dancers Amplified is building a vetted Slack workplace that puts dancers from various parts of the globe in communication. Slack, an app that functions much like a forum with various channels, allows for direct messaging and document sharing. Recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all approach in developing anti-racist policies, Dancers Amplified continually updates a growing list of resources for education and support, a directory of dancer-led initiatives, and a glossary of key terms defined by our experience in the field to guide us as we lead this culture shift.

“Our intellect reaches beyond our bodies, the studios, and the stages on which we present our work. Our work is alive. We are the activators leading the dance world towards an equitable, diverse, and inclusive future.” 

– – –

ABOUT DANCERS AMPLIFIED

Dancers Amplified is a global alliance of dancers activating their voices to ignite and sustain a shift away from the harmful, divisive, and racist cultures that have long permeated the dance industry. Across multiple platforms, Dancers Amplified aims to center marginalized perspectives, empower artists who have felt unable to speak, and spotlight individuals, projects, and organizations working towards social justice in dance. Under the fiscal sponsorship of the International Association of Blacks in Dance, Dancers Amplified offers support— in resources and funding— towards keeping industry leaders accountable in taking genuine steps towards equity, diversity, inclusion, and access. 

CONTACT marketing@dancersamplified.com

Catch Gabrielle Salvatto, our September Cover model, and current dancer with Tanz Company Innsbruck, speaking about Dancers Amplified HERE 

Catch the Dancers Amplified campaign film here 

Shaping Sound… Shaping the way for dance

While ballet has its often downfalls of lackluster performances and vague storylines, Travis Wall’s Shaping Sound Company delivers with a punch with After The Curtain. With cast of mainstreamed dancers, amazing sets by Greg Anderson, lighting design that puts most ballet shows to shame by Nathan Schemer and Terese Porterfield, costumes in a subtle and refined palette by Gabrielle Letamendi and produced by Break The Floor; Travis Wall reiterates his Emmy win, and makes way for contemporary commercial dance company and dancer.

 

Shaping Sound After the Curtain.jpg
Photo by Amber Skaggs (@ambernovella)

 

Founded in 2012 by Travis Wall, who does not need to list his accomplishments, pioneered a new type of dance company. The commercial contemporary dance company. Slowly, it evolved to create full storyline productions, integrated various styles of dance, and made way for the commercial contemporary dancer. (Yes, Bad Boys and Kings of Ballet and Complexions were there, but Travis Wall made a company that accommodated the dancer coming from the jazz studio competition circuit, not just the ballet cross-trained dancer.)

So, I was supposed to go review the performance in Charleston in February, but since I found myself in Arizona this week, I was lucky enough to go see it. As I arrived, I was blown away by people begging for tickets on the street, scalpers, and the entire dance scene of Arizona attending. (If you are from Arizona or have spent some time there, you would know it is very rare to have comp studios, ballet academies, professional contemporary dancers, and post-modern dancers all in one place.) Children from Ballet Arizona, Master Ballet Academy, Club Dance and tons of other studios flocked to the theater tonight. But that wasn’t the best part, the majority of the theater was filled with dance lovers, nondancers, and spanned generations. Not to mention it was packed, if not sold out.

Now, the cast was filled with beyond exceptional movers. The dancers included Travis Wall, Nick Lazzarini, Chantel Aguirre, Barton Cowperthwaite, Michael Dameski, Mia Dilena, Jay Jay Dixonbey, Rory Freeman, Kate Harpootlian, Michael Keefe, Lindsay Leuschner, Channing Cooke and Riley Kurilko. And, since it was a Break the Floor Production and Gil Stroming was the executive producer, the standard was set pretty high. And I won’t lie, I was a little skeptical if I would make it through the whole show. (We all know I have a tendency to fall asleep at the theater)

You walked into the arena, yes it was at the Comerica Theatre so you got to have snacks inside. So of course, I got popcorn. Now I thought, “I am here with my nugget what did I get myself into?” As we walked into the theatre, you walked into the stage completely exposed and the ghost light on center-center.

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As the story unfolded, I was intrigued, and while the first twenty minutes were hard to get into, it then became mesmerizing. Literally, an entire story unfolded examining the complex issues and relationships between humans. Something that dance often lacks, overshoots, or translates poorly. As things slowly started to unfold it almost felt disjointed and choppy, but as it progressed you start to realize that all of those nuances and slight phrases that were out of place all actually have a place. (It was quite brilliant.) The choreography (Travis Wall, Nick Lazzarini, Teddy Forance and tap choreography by Anthony Morigerato) was exceptional. Most notably the pas de deuxs between Travis Wall’s Character Vincent and Barton Cowperthwaite’s character Sebastien were beyond exceptional and carried such weight, that I was moved. (And we all know, that performances rarely move me.) While the crowd adored all the special effects (lights, sticks, ropes, papers… if you go see the show, and you should, you will understand) I could have done without sticks.

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So, without giving a lot away, because you should just go see the show for yourself, I will tell you what was so moving about this production. The story examines everything from sexuality (if you are conservative Christian family with kids, this show might not be your cup of tea), alcoholism, adultery, promiscuity, murder, life, after-life, relationships, and family dynamics, and Shaping Sound delivers it in two hours. While some characters are more fleshed out than others, all of the characters evolve, change, and bring a sense of human conflict into their dancing. Nick Lazzarini‘s character evolves so beautifully that just a huge changes how you perceive the character. Lazzarini takes such care and exception of his character that his endless turns, and gravity-defying jumps don’t overshadow the character. Barton Cowperthwaite‘s character not only evolves after death, but Cowperthwaite is able to fuse the standard balletic emotions, but makes them sincere and thought out. The young Michael Dameski, 21, played Wall’s alter ego. The Audience Favorite from 2014 SYTYCD Australia kept up with Travis in quality, technique, and emotion giving him a great promising start in the American dance scene.

While the men delivered extremely strong performances, I think the women are still growing into their roles. Their characters are beautiful and all of the women moved beautifully with qualities most dancers lack. But, when the men are delivering beyond exceptional performances and beautiful technique it almost distracts when the women are not keeping up. Chantel Aguirre‘s role of the women was the most technical and versatile but since she lacked the 180 penché, the line and effect were lost.

Overall, as the show came to an end, I think the audience was stunned. Not just because it was a great produced show, but it also demanded the audience to think about social issues today. With the New York Times just publishing the dynamic of man on man duets and applauding NYCB’s Justin Peck… Travis Wall just blew him out of the water tenfold and created a work that not only explored all depths of sexuality, but was accepted by the general mainstream public (especially in Arizona…).

It was given a standing applause almost immediately after the lights went out and this was only the second time this production was performed. 

Additionally, each dancer as they came out to bow individually, were so sincere and humble that they each only bowed for maybe three seconds before running off, even Travis. Their bows were not the long overdone ballet bows, and that made it even more effective in humanizing dance stars.

While many have mainstreamed ballet with these contemporary pop/ballet shows, and contemporary ballet companies offer triple-bill programs, no one has really pulled off an entire story evening of contemporary dance. While, new ballets like Wheeldon’s Alice for Royal Ballet, Scarlett’s Frankenstein for Royal and San Francisco’s collaboration, and Possokhov’s Hero of Our Time, the art of storytelling in ballet sometimes falls short. And while other productions have popularized dance and pop culture like Joffrey’s Billboards to the music of Prince, Kings of Ballet, Bad Boys of Ballet and numerous collaborative productions (including Broadway and film); Travis Wall’s Shaping Sound really has created a space for competitive contemporary dancers to have a chance at a full-time job in a company, and has proven you can tell a two hour story with no speaking parts, move beautifully, produce an elaborate production, and sell tickets in a single stroke. This is a performance that is a must see. I urge you all. Even if you are uncomfortable talking to your kids about homosexuality, alcoholism, and other social problems- it does make you remember that good, quality, exceptional dancing and technique can be human and doesn’t always have to be about a princess who needs saving.

GET YOUR TICKETS HERE!

What is Contemporary Ballet?

contemporary ballet history

In the world of ballet, well the world of dance, everyone is throwing around the genre of contemporary ballet. But, what is contemporary ballet? If we look at the dance spectrum as a whole, contemporary would fall somewhere between classical ballet and post-modern. If we looked at a progressive timeline, contemporary ballet would fall somewhere in the 1920’s-1940’s between the Ballets Russes (active 1909-1929) and the birth of New York City Ballet (f. 1948).

Ballet Timeline
Partial timeline from my new book… The Illustrated Guide to Ballet

 

 

So, by definition, contemporary is defined by living or occurring at the same time, or belonging to or occurring in the present. So, by definition, contemporary ballet really can only be defined as ballets that are currently being created. That really doesn’t work for us, since dance historians are classifying the emergence of contemporary ballet somewhere in the 1960’s. This being different from neoclassical ballet. Neoclassical ballet referring to the Balanchine/Massine ballets. All the meanwhile jazz and modern dance emerged.

From the 60’s choreographers, directors and dancers started new innovative collaborations; taking the best in music, costume design, vocabulary and more. From here, a new vocabulary emerged and the idea of cross-training in all genres emerged.

In the 80’s a strong group of choreographers created a vocabulary of movement that manipulated the classical technique in such a way it became part of the standard repertoire of today. Some of these men include John Cranko, William Forsythe and Jiri Kylian.

From this group of innovators, a new group of individuals emerged: Alonzo King, Dwight Rhoden, Desmond Richardson, John Neumeier, and Matthew Bourne, just to name a few.

This created the current group of individuals leading contemporary ballet: Alexei Ratmansky, Yuri Possokhov, Christopher Wheeldon, Benjamin Millpied, Justin Peck, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Crystal Pite, Liam Scarlett, Wayne McGregor and more.


How do you classify what is a contemporary ballet?

If we classified contemporary ballet as dances done on pointe to different music, or incorporating other dance vocabularies… then Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain wouldn’t be considered a contemporary ballet. But, if we look at contemporary ballet as a dance that uses the ballet vocabulary, then it would be a contemporary ballet.

If we said that a contemporary ballet is based on the vocabulary of classical ballet, then every genre of classical dance would be considered contemporary ballet.

Here is how I like to classify what is contemporary ballet and what is contemporary dance (by no means is this the standard rubric of classifying dance, just mine):

  • If the dance is on pointe, it is contemporary ballet.
  • If the majority of the dance is based on technique and the principals of ballet, it is contemporary ballet.
  • If the majority of the dance vocabulary derives on a feeling, gestures, or sets it is contemporary dance.
  • If the dance movement is primarily based on the principals of turnout, it is contemporary ballet.
  • If the dance is about lack of control of the body, contemporary dance while the constraint of articulation enforces it is a contemporary ballet.

One of the major differences I think between contemporary ballet and contemporary dance is the purpose why the dance is created. I think contemporary ballets are made with the intent of surviving the test of time and becoming a part of the standard ballet company repertory, where contemporary dance is made for the moment, and truly embraces the word contemporary.

So, as you are preparing for the YAGP and shows, you should ask yourself a few things.

  • What is the purpose of this work?
  • What is the intent behind each of the movements? Is it technique? It is placement? Articulation? Flexibility? Emotion?
  • Is this work going to be relevant in 5 years? 10 years? 20 years?
  • What is the story behind the work?
  • Where is the vocabulary coming from? Jazz? Ballet? Hip Hop? Modern?
  • Who is this work intended for? Judges? Audience? Social Media? Yourself?
  • Why are you dancing this?

The wonderful part of the world of contemporary ballet and dance today is the ability to juxtapose anything together. Whether it is a classical costume to hip-hop music, classical music and postmodern gestures, pointe work and gender, the lack of music and classical ballet technique. The combinations are endless. Just like the world of contemporary ballet, the possibilities of combining gestures and technique, fusing articulation and constraint, breath and technique… It is quite amazing.

A problem that a lot of work is running into is that the possible combinations and dance vocabulary is running out. As dance is moving forward we are exploring the articulation in and out of the technique, timing and pushing the limits of our body, and as this is becoming the standard, classical ballets will no longer be created. We are already seeing it with the Balanchine repertory becoming more common, and the acquisition of the Forsythe, Wheeldon, Ratmansky, Peck ballets becoming a part of standard repertory around the world. While the classics will always be performed, I don’t think very many more classical ballets will ever be created. Tudor, MacMillan, and Neumeier might have been the last ones to create a “classical” ballet.


What makes good contemporary ballet?

This is a double edge sword to answer. But a good contemporary ballet, for me, is something moving. Whether or not it tells a story gives no weight into if it is good or bad. I think the manipulation of the body, control of the articulation is extremely important, but that is half the dancer half the choreographer. The use or the lack of use of the space on all levels. Musicality. Pathways. The manipulation of technique. The idea behind the piece…

Here are some of my favorite works… the list is too long to list them all… Hope you enjoy.

Wayne McGregor’s Chroma

Alonzo King’s Meyer… almost all of his works I love though…

William Forsythe’s … well most things of his as well haha. But, I think right now in the ballet world the two most accessible ballets are In the Middle Somewhat Elevated and The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude.

Justin Peck’s… well almost anything as well… but here is his Rodeo.