writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

High Energy Frenzy

Complexions Contemporary Ballet
Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
New York, NY
June 23, 2004

By Susan Reiter
copyright © 2004 by Susan Reiter
published June 29, 2004

As Dwight Rhoden's numbing three-part Anthem stretched out to its two-and-a-half-hour length, I wondered whether this was the dance world's version of the Extreme Sports that turn up on odd cable channels and apparently appeal to a taste for vicarious thrills and incredibly daring feats, cultivated in those who find traditional sports just too tame and passé. Maybe this is Extreme Dancing—bodies always working at a fever pitch, the pace and intensity relentless, the action coming in short, harsh bursts of movement—a couple here, a group over there—and never developing any sustained through-line.

Clearly there's a taste out there for Rhoden's approach to dance; Complexions, the company he and Desmond Richardson co-founded, is marking its tenth anniversary, and Rhoden is commissioned by companies around the country. Perhaps people see it as dancing on the edge, and can "relate" to its suggestions of club dancing and its driving, sweaty approach. Rhoden's movement has a sexy, sleek veneer, and the company features lots of gorgeous bodies with the butts and pecs accentuated by the mostly spandex costuming. It incorporates ballet technique—some of the women perform in pointe shoes, some of the time—but its style is mainly revved-up modern dance. Rhoden seems to admire William Forsythe, and his style blends the harsh, fierce alienation of Forsythe's world with the gutsy, much juicier intensity of the Ailey tradition.

Anthem delivers plenty of "attitude" in terms of its performer's aggressive, tale-no-prisoners attack and often narcissistic projection. It also purports to examine and reflect urgent American issues; each of its three sections is named after a color in the flag. Rhoden's program notes make the case for his thematic concerns, and he doesn't shy away from blatantly alluding to 9/11. His words, however, are more thought-provoking than what we see onstage. Rhoden throws all his ideas out there and then some. He has 23 dancers at his disposal, and throws them onstage in abundance too. At key moments the full ensemble is out there sweating away, and at other times they trade off at a hectic pace, with the stage picture in constant flux.

Anthem's uncredited set consisted of a fence-like piece that traversed the upstage area, but what looked like the railing along its top was actually a platform along which dancers could cross. Rhoden often set individual figures striding or posing atop it, but his use of the contrasting levels never suggested a strong or persuasive theatrical concept.

"Red/The Force" rambles along to the electronic, percussive sounds of Antonio Carlos Scott (whose scores Rhoden uses frequently) before giving way to Jimi Hendrix's rendition of the national anthem and music by Depeche mode and Piazzolla. Amid the writhing, confrontational goings-on, Sarita Allen occasionally strutted through as a sassy diva in red. Wearing heels and a high-fashion look featuring a slit skirt, she was clearly not a member of the spandex-clad tribe, and her relationship to them was unclear. Allen has always been, and remains, a commanding performer, but Rhoden does her no favors by asking her to pose and glower amid the surrounding frenzy.

The dancers seemed to egg each other on in their fast-paced, split-second partnering and aerobic intensity. Rhoden occasionally had them shout or yell "yeah" as though they were reaffirming the shared message that was kept very vague to those of us out front. The annoying then became the truly pretentious when the dancers formed lines and stood with their hands in prayer position, then brought the section to its close by dropping to the floor and shouting "Amen."

"White/The Clearing" featured the slim, enigmatic Michael Thomas, always a riveting performer, as a sacrificial or searching figure. With everyone else in simple tops and briefs of white and grey, he wore tight shiny pants with a faded American flag design. Twelve sections spilled forth to varied, often percussive, musical accompaniment, with one section, during which several men suddenly appeared in long white skirts, sounding like ersatz "Carmina Burana." Couples engaged in clinging, desperate duets, and umbrellas carried by passersby emerged as a recurring visual motif. After a flurry of what looked like snow but was apparently intended to represent falling ash, Desmond Richardson lurched grotesquely across the ledge above. In this clumsy way, I presume we were being informed that tragedy has struck, and "White" closed with an inconclusive fadeout.

"Blue/The Game" looked like it has been assembled in a hurry. Some ungainly costumes and heavy-handed attempts at humor did not help. Whatever commentary or satire on the present state of American politics and culture was intended, it did not register amid the hectic, superficial antics. Presumably because it was set to three selections by Charles Mingus, the dancers adopted a lot of jive atttitude and paw-like hands that made them look like refugees from Ailey's Night Creature.

There was a striking, if perplexing, opening in which Thomas, suspended between two tall, none-too-steady set pieces pulled himself up and climbed to a momentary perch. Then the stage became a messy collection of men in fedoras, a group of sassy women (The Botox Bitches, the program called them) led by the returning Allen, and others.

Rhoden keeps the stage so busy that nothing comes clearly into focus. Some might call it an embarrassment of riches, and clearly the assaultive overload has a certain appeal to some audiences, but mainly his work comes across as an excess of movement ideas with no overriding craftsmanship behind them. And the pile-up effect does the very hard-working dancers no favors. Sandra Brown, formerly of ABT and always a fascinating dancer to watch, had a few standout moments, as did Richardson, who was not given the star treatment here but mainly did yeoman's work as one among many.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 24
June 29, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Susan Reiter



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last updated on June 29, 2004