Complexions Contemporary Ballet
Ashley Mayeux of Complexions Contemporary Ballet. Photograph by Rachel Neville

Modern Muse

Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, co-founders of Complexions Contemporary Ballet

Complexions Contemporary Ballet, by virtue of its name, conjures graceful athleticism with the more formal rigors of ballet. Co-founded by Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson in 1994, the 15-member troupe is testament to sculpted lines and a hyperphysical aesthetic, one whose brand is instantly identifiable. Indeed, the Rhoden/Richardson partnership has not only built a company that tours the world, but has served as one of dance’s most illustrious creative pairings, with Richardson, still performing at 47, Rhoden’s muse.

Their latest creation, “Imprint/Maya,” an homage to the late poet, memoirist and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou, will have its West Coast premiere at Los Angeles’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, with six other Rhoden works completing the program that begins April 15 for three performances.

Said Rhoden, 54, by phone from New York, where the multicultural troupe is based: “There have been other guys along the way that have been very special that have realized my work, but it’s always inspiring to work with Desmond. We can operate creatively in a way that there’s not a lot of talking. Because he’s so poetic, it’s the perfect alliance.”

Dwight Rhoden. Photo by Jae Man Joo
Dwight Rhoden. Photograph by Jae Man Joo

The pair met in Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1987, where they both danced for seven years. The New York Times hailed them as “… two of the greatest virtuosos ever to emerge from Ailey land.” Richardson, whose credits also include a Tony-nominated turn in “Fosse” in 1999 and, more recently as a notable performer in the 2013 Tony Award-winning production, “After Midnight,” also speaking by phone from New York, explained his unique position:

“I do believe that as a muse I am allowing the movement to come through my body, and also I’m allowing it to come out and share it with the public and the dancers that we work with.”

Although Richardson had just returned from Serbia with the troupe, as well as having taught class on a recent morning, his voice showed no sign of fatigue. He said his memories of Ailey, who died in 1989, were strong. “Alvin wanted passion, desire, character and realness. He asked that of all the dancers. He didn’t say how old you were, he wanted to understand who you were, through your dancing. The technical prowess can be there, but he was more concerned with what you brought out of your humanity.”

As for “Imprint/Maya,” the first in a series that Rhoden is making about iconic figures, Richardson, whom the Los Angeles Times’ former dance critic, Lewis Segal, lauded for his “slinky, drop-dead star power,” said that he and Rhoden had met Angelou with Ailey.

“They were dear friends and she’d seen both of us dance. Dwight and I were reading through her prose [last year], and he said, ‘I’m inspired to do something, would you want to dance?’ I said, ‘ Hell, yes. Absolutely.’ From the get-go, it was such a beautiful collaboration, with David Rozenblatt bringing us a stunning piece of his music. Thus, it was born.”

Combining a street vernacular with a classical articulation to express verse and rhyme, “Imprint” is a six-minute tour de force for Richardson, who—pleasing all of his many fans—will be clad only in dance shorts to better show off his rippling physique, überflexibility and seductive charm.

Desmond Richardson. Photograph by Dahlen
Desmond Richardson. Photograph by Dahlen

Rhoden, who also recalled meeting Angelou, said he was struck by her warmth and enthusiasm. He pointed out that Richardson promotes the idea of “sculpture moving. We don’t put much clothes on Desmond,” he added with a laugh. “He’s really gorgeous in it, and the one thing about the solo is we wanted to kick it back to his street background—he was a pop locker. It’s not pop locking, but it’s the essence of that vocabulary, as well as his elegance and ability to tell a story.”

Rhoden emphasized that “Imprint” is not a solo with a lot of jumps and turns. “It’s smoother, more grounded. It has an earthiness to it and it’s not about tricks. It’s about speaking. It’s a monologue, with his body.”

The L.A. program opens with “Ballad Unto . . . ,” a 30-minute, neoclassical full-scale work on pointe that premiered last year in Rome with Rome Opera Ballet. Set to music by Bach, the piece, which has had several incarnations, including the original one for Tulsa Ballet, rolls onto the stage with a sprawling emotionality, as seven couples interact in an intimate abstraction of love.

Rhoden, who has choreographed more than 100 works, including for the Ailey troupe, Joffrey Ballet, Miami City Ballet, Mariinsky Ballet, Philadanco and other companies, said his process is not a set one, but that, “it all kind of merges together for me. With “Ballad,” I picked the music first [as] it was being played live by an orchestra in Rome.

“I wanted to use Bach,” he continued, “because I wanted a work that moves freely and felt good. I started with music, then went into the studio to build the vocabulary.”

“Cryin’ To Cry Out” features the stylings of the late jazz vocalist with the countertenor voice, Jimmy Scott. It also premiered last year, in Atlanta, where Complexions will soon have a second home. And though Angelenos will see only one excerpt of the work, a duet with Terk Waters and Youngsil Kim, Rhoden spoke of Scott as an inspiration.

“Jimmy was an incredible jazz singer, a crooner with an idiosyncratic style. He elongated things and sang really, really high. Many people thought he was a woman, and Nancy Wilson talked about Jimmy being an influence on how she developed her own style. I feel like he’s an unsung hero, and there’s been no one like him before or since.”

Ashley Mayeux. Photograph by Rachel Neville
Ashley Mayeux, Complexions Contemporary Ballet. Photograph by Rachel Neville

The work was originally made on dancer Ashley Mayeux, who will instead be performing the duet, “Testament,” set to a choral rendition of “Amazing Grace,” with Andrew Brader, formerly of Los Angeles Ballet. Mayeux, 26, has been with Complexions, whose dancers range in age from 19-30, since 2012. She talked by phone about working with Rhoden.

“Dwight’s style is so unique. I’ve never done anything that’s quite as intense as [what] he does. In the beginning of the year,” added Mayeux, “he’s creating works for the company, and he’s at every day of rehearsal creating for 15 individuals. He’s hands-on and close with us.”

With Complexions the first troupe Mayeux has been in, she said she’d worried about, “being perfect with my technique. Once I got into Complexions, they insisted I bring myself into the work. With Dwight, you [do that] and discover who you are. I’ve grown into myself as an individual.

“People always say,” added Mayeux, “that Complexions looks like dancers who look like models. Dwight loves the way you look, but he’s more interested in the person who is inside and can touch an audience.”

This thinking also pertains to the eternal question of technique versus artistry, with Richardson acknowledging that artistry comes with maturity.

“I have to relate that to myself, where Alvin [Ailey] said, ‘You’re so good, you’re so powerful, but can you walk on the street and just stand there?’ I couldn’t do that. I didn’t have that maturity at the time. All I had was physicality, but Alvin would make me rehearse every detail, and make me do it extremely slow, so that I understood the in-between, the transitional moments, that’s what mature artists understand.

“Carmen [de Lavallade] or Donnie McKayle would come in the room and coach us,” added Richardson, “because Alvin wanted more than just the physicality. He wanted a human being on the stage. And that’s what we relate to our artists in Complexions.

“They have to be able to permeate and infect the space. So you break that fourth wall and the audience is engaged. They’re not just sitting there watching,” maintained Richardson, who is currently working on a one-man show and recording an EP (both his father and aunt were singers, and he made his singing debut in Broadway’s “The Look of Love” in 2003).

“They’re having an experience with you, because you’re having a visceral experience,” he explained.

Complexions is nothing if not visceral, with Richardson having led the charge for a new generation of dancers. Muscles, angled torsos, bare skin and six o’clock extensions are all part of the company’s DNA. Rhoden said that he looks for dancers who “have a strong, clear grasp of themselves as people.

“Even if they’re not fully developed,” he added, “they’re not afraid to be uncomfortable. People who have a strong foundation, that don’t have any blocks about moving in a different way, technically sound dancers.”

Rhoden pointed out that he also likes dancers “who have a lot of heart, their own point of view and want to say something. I don’t pretend to have all the best ideas. In many ways, I manage the ideas. I bring to the table my ideas, and hope I have some good ones. From there I get out of the way and allow the possibilities to unfold.”

Terk Waters. Photograph by Jae Man Joo
Terk Waters. Photograph by Jae Man Joo

Complexions has appeared throughout the States and internationally, garnering countless rave reviews. But in New York, Rhoden has been subject to some lacerating criticism, including the New York Times’ Alastair Macaulay writing, in 2010, “As an example of High Junk at its showiest, look no further than Complexions. All the choreography was by Mr. Rhoden; all was efficiently horrid.”

Rhoden responded by saying he thinks that type of appraisal is “sad. We are a New York born and bred company, a very original arts organization. Yes, I do read the [reviews], but I’m almost always ready to receive a negative comment when it’s the New York Times.”

Still, being a self-confessed, glass-is-half-full type of guy, Rhoden added, “We’ve been here for over two decades, and we’re proud of it. One bad comment can’t stop what we’re doing or where we’re going. Our reviews around the world are super, super positive. When we come into a community, the reaction is the same in Kansas as it is in Lyon, France. The main thing I’m concerned about is that we connect with the audience.”

Richardson, a Bessie Award winner who has partnered with ballerina Diana Vishneva in several commissioned works, said that even when Complexions appears in Russia they are well received, noting, “There’s a way to critique and get your opinion across without being nasty and so insensitive to the artist. Someone like Dwight, who works on his craft regardless what they may think, he is that choreographer who can do a whole evening and it can not be boring.”

Neither can Richardson! But with the multi-talented artist turning 50 in a few years, one wonders whether he has any thoughts on leaving the dance stage.

“For me, I see it as just growing. It’s like Carmen [de Lavallade] said, and we talk all the time, because she mentored me: ‘You do what you can when you can. Since you can still move, do it. It’s important to continue and don’t feel like you have to stop something, because all of a sudden you’re older.’ I listen to her. Look at the career she’s had.”

Richardson’s career, does feel far from over. He’s working on a book of dance photos with the well-known photographer Bruce Weber. But whatever he does, he gives it his all, and when Complexions ends its L.A. program with last season’s “Innervisions,” choreographed to the music of Stevie Wonder, his and Rhoden’s keen aesthetic will be on full view. It will also leave one with the notion that the ‘c’ word—crossover—might very well be up for debate.

“It’s okay,” said Richardson, who has performed with Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna, among other megastars, as well as guesting with troupes including American Ballet Theatre and Teatro alla Scala, the latter with ballet star Roberto Bolle. “It’s entertainment, and we are in the business of entertainment, but in the concert world.

“The audience wants to be on the edge, be engaged with you. They want to be taken on a journey,” added Richardson. “They pay their money, they want to be transported, and then you’re done. Go have a glass of wine.”

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