Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson and a company where communication is key

The textures of complexions: Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson and a company where communication is key

Rose Eichenbaum

COMPLEXIONS was conceived in 1994 to blend the uniqueness and the diversity of artists of different cultures and races and to celebrate a shared passion for dance. Inspired by social and political issues as well as human relationships, the company’s repertoire is deliberately contemporary and accessible to a wide range of audience tastes. Founders Desmond Richardson and Dwight Rhoden, along with their New York City-based company of dance thoroughbreds–there are roughly twenty in the company, but guest artists swell the ranks as needed–have awakened audiences to a new, exciting genre that combines the best of athleticism, lyricism, and technical training and experience.

Rhoden’s dancers dive headfirst into an innovative vocabulary of shapes, body undulations, and warp-speed movement phrases, risky jumps, falls, and slides. Rhoden describes his work as an “amalgamation of textures–dense, purposefully multilayered, and thick.” Even his preference for moody, low lighting, as designed by Michael Korsch, challenges his dancers. But as one dancer puts it, “We’re willing to deal with a little discomfort because we know we will look better to the audience.”

Rhoden’s choreography is classical dance unleashed. It’s a hip blend of hyper ballet, jazz, lyrical, and funk, fine-tuned with Richardson’s attention to perfection in execution and delivery. Rhoden challenges the dancers to fill every movement, shape, and gesture to their most extreme end point, taking dance to an exciting level of performance. A dancer whose background includes American Ballet Theatre and Broadway’s Fosse, Richardson says he is always trying to find ways to increase his body’s communicative range, make it more expressive. Although he has danced with some great companies and was nominated for a Tony for Fosse, his hunger to exhaust the human body’s ability to communicate continues.

“Learn what is being expressed inside of you and come from an honest place,” Richardson tells dancers, encouraging them to examine why they dance. “If you want to speak, then learn how to with different inflections and in different ways. Onstage you must commit [totally] to that voice because when you are there you are completely vulnerable. Being honest … [extends to] being comfortable and in control.”

Dancer Meg Gurin-Paul, formerly a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, says, “This choreography and overall intention of its artistic directors force you to reach new levels technically and investigate the body in a way you might never do. In classical ballet, the energy stops as soon as you hit your mark. Not so here. The flow generated by the choreography is circular. It drives and invigorates you to push beyond into totally uncharted territory.”

“When Dwight invited me to dance with Complexions,” recalls dancer Seth Delgrasso. “I didn’t think twice about it. I knew dancing his choreography, and the way he encourages dancers to take liberties, would elevate me out of my comfort zone of classical ballet and help me to discover another side to my dancing.”

“Dancers are my first priority,” insists Rhoden, who like Richardson is an alumnus of Alvin Alley American Dance Theater. “I feel a responsibility to keep them inspired and create for them. I look for dancers who are willing to make creative choices. That’s how artists are born. Otherwise you have a bunch of robots doing steps.”

RHODEN’S CHOREOGRAPHIC APPROACH is refreshingly dancer-specific. Rhoden says, “My work completely changes according to who’s in front of me, because I want them to feel a certain degree of ownership of the work. I’ll take what I know about them and how they move, and create from there. I tell them this is the framework, you have to be off the stage by this time. I’ve given you a series of steps; your timing is your own and you take it from there.”

Rhoden encourages his dancers to invest themselves and personally connect with the intention of the work. While rehearsing From Me to You in About Half the Time, which deals with personal relationships, he told them, “There’s a certain emotion when there’s no turning back. When it’s over, it’s over. There should be a sentiment building to that final moment. When you get into that section, realize this is the last time you will ever relate to this person in this way. Make it have meaning. When and if you meet again, your encounter will carry little of your previous relationship.” His use of imagery reinforces and informs the dancers of his intention but also gives them an emotional hook of their own. His ability to clearly articulate in words what he’s trying to convey in movement is one of his most valuable attributes as a choreographer. Simply stated, his dancers get it, because he is an excellent communicator.

But by his own admission, the work also comes from a great need to express himself. “When I found dance,” he says, “I found out who I was. Six months after I started dancing I began choreographing.”

Rhoden, who has created more than thirty ballets for Complexions and other companies, including Alvin Alley and the Dayton Contemporary Dance Theater, says, “I try not to posture. If something is getting contrived, I’ll stop. I’ll give the dancers a break or call it a day.

“I’m sometimes amazed at what comes out,” he says. “Quite often I feel naked even though I don’t set out to be that revealing. I know I’m an intense person. It’s very emotional work and sometimes can be a lot to take in on one program. Consequently, I’m sensitive to how it is perceived.”

Rhoden and Richardson contract dancers for Complexions who have performed with some of the most prestigious companies in the world, including the Royal Swedish Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, and Dance Theatre of Harlem. Artist in Residence Sarita Allen and Uri Sands danced with the Ailey company for twenty and five years, respectively. Edwaard Liang is a former soloist with New York City Ballet. Meg Gurin-Paul will be dancing on Broadway in a Twyla Tharp/Billy Joel collaboration; Solange Sandy Groves took leave from her role in Broadway’s Aida to dance with Complexions. Michael Thomas, Jamal Story, Marc Mann, Valerie Madonia, Miho Kanani Morinoue, Heather H. Thompson, Don Bellamy, Sabra Perry, Sheri Williams, Christine Hollingsworth, Seth Delgrasso, Jeffrey Polston, Griff Braun, Mucuy Bolles, and Meredith Rainey were all handpicked by Rhoden and Richardson for their ability to transcend technique and bring their own uniqueness to the choreography.

Composer and singer Charles Veal Jr. showed up at rehearsal to see what Rhoden had created for his composition, “Wiegen Lied,” (an excerpt from the John F. Kennedy Jr. Suite) and was so moved by the choreography that his eyes filled with tears. He says, “God kissed me the day I met Dwight Rhoden. I can write like Stravinsky and then go into B. B. King, and Dwight can turn that into artistry. He’s the modern-day Leonard Bernstein of the dance.”

Carmen de Lavallade, artistic advisor to the company, says, “After fifty years as a dancer, I feel like I’m starting all over, but this time it’s with much younger people. It’s wonderful to see the long-lifers like myself come together with these young, talented people. Young people are our shining light.”

“Carmen’s presence and counsel are invaluable to me,” says Rhoden. “She has great depth to her artistry. I ask her opinion quite a lot about decisions I am making. At 70, she’s seen it and done it all, and she brings with her experience as a mother, teacher, and performer as well as her lineage to Alvin [Ailey and Lester Horton].” When he choreographed It All–a pas de deux to music by Bjork for de Lavallade and dancer/choreographer Gus Solomons jr, age 61–the work simply evolved when Rhoden and the dancers met. “I don’t know how it came together. We had it basically done in one session. I just let it happen and watched it quietly unfold.”

Despite a scathing review by Los Angeles Times dance critic Lewis Segal, the company’s L.A. engagement last November at the Music Center proved hugely successful. Vince Paul, president of World Arts Inc., which represents the company, says, “Sponsorship support was overwhelmingly positive, and ticket sales surpassed Twyla Tharp’s and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s engagements here. Hope of future L.A. bookings is very promising.”

CHEERED BY HOLLYWOOD CELEBS such as Whoopi Goldberg and Patrick Swayze–who made a plea to bring Complexions to a West Coast home–the audience fell head over heels for the dancers. The program included everything from a stunning pas de deux performed by Madonia and Rainey to Caccini’s Ave Maria, to a thirty-minute disco-drama, Higher Ground, to the tunes of Earth, Wind & Fire. Watching de Lavallade and Solomons in It All, you knew you were watching history being made. Athletic Shed Williams, whose chiseled muscles could be seen in the last row of the theater, drew in the audience with her gladiatorial power in Growth. Sarita Allen, who says Alvin Ailey taught her to dance in high heels when she was 16, showed the stamina of a teenager with the accumulated heat of a mature woman when she partnered with sexy Marc Mann in Please, Please, Please to James Brown’s “This Is a Man’s World.”

Rhoden and Richardson clearly have a great passion for what they are doing–and for bringing diverse people together. “These dancers represent a microcosm of global unity,” says Rhoden. “If you look beyond the steps, you can see we are all cut from the same cloth.”

Rose Eichenbaum is a Los Angeles-based contributing photographer to Dance Magazine.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Dance Magazine, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group