Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Dance review: Complexions astonishes in Duncan show

A scene from Dwight Rhoden's Mercy.
(Photo by Lee Talner)

By Sharon McDaniel

A chance TV viewing of One Last Dance (2003, Patrick Swazye) alerted me to Complexions Contemporary Ballet. Of the film’s extraordinary dance cast, Desmond Richardson’s exceptional segments burned Complexions into my brain.

It has taken a long wait to get the troupe to West Palm Beach for anything more than just tantalizing one work on a festival program. But the 15-year-old company, co-founded and co-directed by Richardson with choreographer Dwight Rhoden, opened the Duncan Theatre’s 2009-10 Modern Dance Series on Friday and Saturday in Lake Worth.

Because of a soloist’s injury, Saturday’s program changed. But it was all for the good. Several small-ensemble pieces were programmed to give the larger company time to rest. Instead, because of the cast change, Complexions performed an astonishing full evening of full-company works, separated by only brief intermissions.

Beyond doubt, this is the finest collection of dancers I’ve seen in recent memory. They are fearless, focused and formidable. I couldn’t pick out one or two favorites – all 15 dancers were top-flight: beautifully strong and strikingly expressive.

Complexions’ seven men, especially, are the most accomplished you could hope for in dance. And with unmatched stamina, the company carried three demanding, high-energy Rhoden ballets -- Mercy (Act I), Hissy Fits (music of Bach) and Rise (music of U2) – to the delight and extended, noisy ovation of the Duncan crowd.

Mercy, the most compelling and successful, seemed to tap into funerary traditions: Ancient Egyptian, Islamic, Buddhist, Christian. Dancers in gossamer white, as if in somber processionals, could have been priests or celebrants in the powerful, high-drama rites.

Subtitled CathedralConfessionsCredoPenance, Act I implores heaven, mourns loss and begs for peace. One man, dressed in red, represents the victim, the pawn of destructive events. Rhoden described this first part of the evening-long epic ballet as man’s search for relief in a world overrun by wars and violence.

The intensity and motion of Mercy never let up for 35 minutes. Modern movements and costumes reminiscent of Alvin Ailey’s iconic Cry, of Martha Graham, even Ted Shawn, thread throughout. But Rhoden, a former Ailey soloist, speaks his own, highly original vocabulary of large -- oversize, even -- strong motions.

Muscle isolations could be as sensual as slow-motion belly dancing. A build-up of tensions seems to rise from the depths of each dancer’s core and the company’s combined passionate mental focus.

Rhoden’s soundtrack is an ever-shifting mash-up of classical (Steve Reich, a glorious composition by organ soloist Michael Murray, Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus), sampled together with Far Eastern chant, gospel vocals, preaching, and percussion sound effects. The result keeps listeners off-balance and on edge. The unpredictability of the sounds can be gripping and effectively jarring. But at its extreme, the sampling, as if mixed by an obsessed DJ, could turn tacky. Worse, the volume was terribly loud all evening.

Mercy contained few props. But the attractive, imaginative lighting designs by Complexions’ Michael Korsch accomplished as much as some entire sets. Downspots rose and descended. Together with side lighting, the spots could create a rock-concert effect or wrap a soloist in a luminous glow.

With Korsch at the controls, the light seemed alive, a potent and complementary force in a spectacular performance.

Richard Alston Dance, Britain's largest contemporary ensemble, appears next at the Duncan Theatre on the campus of Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth. Tickets: $37-$95, Call (561) 868-3309 or visit www.duncantheatre.org.

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