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Complexions in Aspen: Dancing and diversity

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Columbia Artists Management Inc.Dance troupe Complexions performs Saturday at the Aspen District Theatre.
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ASPEN ” Uniformity has often been considered an ideal in ballet ” uniformity of body types, of training, of movement style, the thinking goes, makes a company look coordinated and polished. But Dwight Rhoden did not come up through traditional ballet channels, and so he looked at dance differently. Moreover, Rhoden’s own blood is not of uniform heritage, but a mix of Irish, Spanish, African-American and Cherokee Indian.

Complexions, then, the company Rhoden co-founded with Desmond Richardson in 1994, turns its back on homogeneity as a virtue. The New York City troupe proclaims its ethos of variety; on the website of its management company, Complexions is billed as “America’s original multi-cultural dance company.”

“We really wanted to send a message through dance, in an interesting way, of a celebration of difference,” said Rhoden by phone. “That’s it’s a beautiful thing, rather than a problem. Bringing different things together and having them interact in a harmonious way, showing how they complement one another. It’s a celebration of contrasts.”

That ethos will be on display when Complexions performs Saturday, March 28, at the Aspen District Theatre, the final event in Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s Winter Dance Series. Among the pieces to be performed are an excerpt from Rhoden’s “Momentary Forevers,” set to the music of Handel, and the closing dance, “Rise,” another Rhoden work set to the rock anthems of U2.

Diversity runs deeper than the music and the dance styles. “It’s every aspect of who the company is,” said Rhoden. “It’s in the work, the cast of dancers ” they have various backgrounds, different bodies. They also don’t look alike. And the music is very different from beginning to end.”

Rhoden says that the individual dances he choreographs don’t necessarily address the theme of diversity. The Aspen program, for instance, opens with “Routines,” a work for the full company that presents a look at a dancer’s rehearsal rituals ” the neurosis, the competitive element, the self-consciousness ” and the transition to performance mode. “Rise” ” which, like “Routines,” was premiered in November at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan ” is a feel-good piece that Rhoden described as an unabashed celebration of familiar pop music. Even in such dances, however, there is the air of variety.

“It’s just who we are, the textures that are part of the evening,” said Rhoden. “It’s not so much about diversity. But the philosophy of the company is that we want dancers who can do many things.”

The company’s multifarious personality may result from a philosophy, and from Rhoden’s genetic background. But it also stems from two other places: the way Rhoden became a dancer, and the way he and Richardson formed Complexions.

Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, Rhoden had no formal introduction to dance. But he loved to move, and he participated regularly in dance competitions. At one contest, a partner noticed his talent and suggested he get some training. At 17, Rhoden enrolled in a class at the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, and he immediately exhibited a hunger to learn. He studied with the Dayton Ballet, went to New York for summer classes, and within six months of beginning his studies in dance, he tried his hand at choreography.

“I was trying to get as much as I could, anywhere I could. I felt I had to train rigorously,” he said. “I was enthralled with all types of movement. I didn’t want to be labeled a ballet dancer, a jazz dancer, a modern dancer. I wanted to do it all.”

Rhoden began his professional career with the Dayton Ballet, and moved on to Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal before joining the New York-based, African-American-oriented Alvin Ailey company in 1987. It was during his seven-year stint there that he met Richardson, another Ailey dancer. He also continued his choreography pursuits, creating the long-form piece “Frames” for Ailey in 1991.

Around 1994, both Rhoden and Richardson were leaving Ailey ” Rhoden wanted a break from dancing; Richardson was headed for the Ballett Frankfurt in Germany, which American dancer William Forsythe was directing. While in their transition phases, the two decided to collaborate on a single show, to be given three performances at Symphony Space on New York’s Upper West Side. Because it was a one-shot show, the dancers were not being paid, and because the dancers were not to be paid, Rhoden and Richardson gathered up a lot of them ” 33, as Rhoden recalls. And with the numbers came diversity.

“We wanted to put people from various companies, different backgrounds ” very classical, very contemporary, even people not formally trained, into hip-hop and street dance ” to get them in a room and do a show,” said Rhoden, who created all the pieces for those performances. “Once we did that, it was very interesting to have a classically trained ballerina next to someone with virtually no training. We realized we had something special.”

Out of that show they created Complexions. “It grew out of an affinity to bring all these people together. A desire to explore,” said Rhoden.

Just as his company is multi-faceted, so is Rhoden. Although his time for freelance work has diminished as Complexions’ stature has grown, he choreographed last year a take on Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella.” When we spoke, Rhoden had just finished a meeting in preparation for his contemporary version of “Othello,” to be danced in May by North Carolina Dance Theatre. He wrote the lyrics to “Moonlight,” the solo piece that opens the Aspen performance, to be danced by Richardson. Rhoden describes the dance as “very intimate, very emotional.”

“I think in many ways we are still that,” Rhoden said, referring to those performances at Symphony Space. “My work has grown and changed, hopefully. But the essence of what we are not is what we were then. The dancers are able to move in many styles. That eclectic nature has remained.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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