Explosive, bold, and vivid: these are the words that came to mind watching the extraordinary dancers of the Complexions Contemporary Ballet Company. An apt description for the company that set out to redefine dance and embrace its multicultural influences. This year, Complexions is presenting three programs during their New York season at the Joyce Theater (November 15-27), all of which celebrate Co-Founder, Artistic Director and dancer Desmond Richardson’s last year performing with the company.

Mercy © Sharon Bradford
Mercy
© Sharon Bradford

Wednesday evening’s "Program A" opened with an excerpt from Mercy (2009), followed by two new works: What Come, Thereafter and Places Please, which will conclude all three programs. Co-Founder, Artistic Director and resident choreographer Dwight Rhoden’s work explored a range of different themes all woven together by a clear aesthetic. From vibrant costumes to dramatic lighting, with strong musical selections, this was perhaps not the subtlest of productions.

Mercy begins with seven couples, the men bare-chested in flowing white pants and the women in lavender leotards (costumes by Christine Darch). They come to life to a combination of spiritual songs and chants, and, from the first move, passion is the force driving them. There are recognizable elements - hands clasped in prayer, the unmistakable word “hallelujah” - but the dancers transform just as easily into foreign entities. Whirling on the spot, pants catching the air like skirts, a sense of organic motion runs through the piece, despite disruptions caused by many costume changes. At one point three women dance with floor-length white skirts, swirling like Caribbean dancers and then spinning like Sufi Dervishes. Dancer D. Gary W. Jeter, II is the focal point, cutting a striking figure in red. His strength and athleticism adds another visual layer to a company of physically strong dancers. In this excerpt Jeter is not frightening or evil but it's impossible to ignore the implications of one red character in a sea of white. His power and clarity allow Rhoden to use props such as a crimson backdrop, which the dancers burst through, and stools that double as buckets (and later partners), without ever overwhelming the dancers’ lines. He achieves controlled visual chaos.

The world premiere of What Come, Thereafter was an emotional glimpse into Complexions and the changes facing the company in the coming year. Rhoden has dedicated this piece and this year to his longtime collaborator and friend Richardson. As they explained in the post-performance discussion (part of the Joyce’s "Dance Chat" series), the artist-muse relationship they have enjoyed has inspired them both, from the first stages of choreography through to performing night after night. Starting in silence, one dancer cues the music as in a rehearsal. Like the maestro leading his orchestra, Richardson leads the other dancers - sometimes moving with them, other times an outside observer. Richardson is utterly at ease and grounded so that energy travels in every direction through his body. The four supporting couples maintain this connection beautifully, both as individuals and in their duets.

The music for What Comes, Thereafter was also a collaboration. The composer and pianist ELEW took every opportunity to study not only Rhoden’s style, but each dancer’s characteristics as well. Playing live Wedensday night, ELEW’s chords filled the theater, undulating through Richardson’s body and reverberated by the other dancers. While highlighting Richardson’s contribution as a member of the company, Rhoden has quite literally choreographed Richardson’s swan song. The stark lighting (Michael Korsch) and jewel-toned but simple costumes (Jae Man Joo) make Richardson’s departure all the more tangible.

Places Please is definitely a feel-good ending, complete with catchy music and a love story. There’s a good chance you’ve danced to this music before, with songs by the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and Dave Brubeck - and watching Complexions, you’re going to want to again. The choreography is fun to watch, mixing swing dance with ballet for a truly contemporary creation. This is the most theatrical performance of the night, with the dancers portraying everything from the playful, flirty vibe of a dance club, to primping backstage, to a nerd in suspenders winning over the girl in the red dress. Darch had fun with the costumes, using the Roaring Twenties motif.

What will Complexions look like without Richardson’s tremendous presence at the forefront? He will be missed - but it’s safe to say that he and Rhoden have a powerful and talented group of dancers, fully capable of continuing their vision.