The sheer heat radiating off of the Marley stage at Chelsea’s Joyce Theater was enough for the dozens of New Yorkers to combat the chilly weather outside on Tuesday (Nov. 17). The Complexions Contemporary Ballet, a multicultural dance company founded by two Alvin Ailey Dance Theater alumni, kept the audience on their toes- and at times on their feet- for five diverse pieces showcasing musicality, movement and emotion during their opening night show. The production also kicks off a two-week run of performances which will conclude Nov. 29.
Co-founding Artistic Director and Artist-in-Residence, Desmond Richardson, founded the company alongside Resident Choreographer Dwight Rhoden in 1994, and the range in ethnicities and abilities of the dancers you’ll see on stage is no accident.
“We had many friends with different ethnicities and different styles- some were hip hop, some were ballet, some were contemporary,” said Richardson of the original members of the company. His dance resume includes work with the Ailey Theater, in the film Chicago and performances with artists such as Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson. He was also a part of Misty Copeland‘s company, American Ballet Theater, as the first African-American principal dancer.
“Someone came in once and said that they liked that there was diversity between ethnicities and genres, and that there were so many different complexions and backgrounds in the group,” Richardson said. “We just kind of went ‘wow,’ and that’s how we got the name for it. We just like to celebrate differences.”
The performance’s opening number Ballad Unto… was set to the classical work of Johann Sebastian Bach. The dance’s central theme was the roller coaster ride we call love, and the company’s female dancers performed en pointe. Strong emotional themes also came into play during the company’s show-stopping finale, Strum. Set to the heavy-metal stylings of the band Metallica, Strum implemented contemporary as well as hip hop in order to guide the audience on a journey involving life, death and evolution.
Cryin’ To Cry Out, a piece centered around standing your ground when the going gets tough, featured a quartet of dancers guiding us through a jazzy reverie of songs by Jimmy Scott, Ella Fitzgerald and Shirley Horn. Approximate Sonata, a duet choreographed by renowned ballet choreographer William Forsythe, chronicles the ins and outs of a rehearsal, which ultimately gauges one dancer’s entire learning and thinking process.
Richardson’s solo, Imprint/Maya, incorporates his hip hop origins by pairing popping, locking, gliding and contemporary as means of self-expression and personal truth, inspired by the work and words of Dr. Maya Angelou. The magnetic routine garnered a standing O from members of the crowd.
The company, which starting rehearsing for the performances in August, features dancers with experience in ballet, modern and commercial dance. Richardson noted that he tries to work with dancers and artists from various dance backgrounds.
“A lot of dancers come to us with good technique, but I want those dancers who say, ‘I did my traditional dance in my native country,’ or they bring these other ways of dancing with them,” he said. “That’s a great thing, why hide that? You never know what that creativity could be used for. I love that non-tradition.”
The company’s M.O. is to bring raw emotion and feeling that the audience resonates with by creating dances that are not only aesthetically pleasing, but real.
“We love to provoke thought through diversity and passionate, powerful dancing, and that crosses the board. It crosses generations, it crosses ethnicities.” A true testament to that sentiment would be Tuesday’s audience members, whose ages ranged from mid-teens to elders, and the multitude of ethnicities were apparent.
What makes for a great performance like the ones displayed at the Joyce Theater that night? Richardson believes that part of it has to do with dancers being able to “explore and investigate” movements given by their choreographers.
“We give them an idea, and although certain movements are done before, you’re going to bring your own uniqueness by pulling from your own life and experiences,” he said. “It’s something that’s coming off the stage. The heart, humanity and individuality is super important for us.”