Complexions Contemporary Ballet’s 29th Season Melds Poetry and Dreams

The company returns to The Joyce Theater with a freshly curated program, Dream On, that includes two world premieres, two company premieres and work by three guest choreographers. 

Complexions was founded in 1994 by Co-Artistic-Directors Dwight Rhoden (former principal dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater) and Desmond Richardson (former—and first African American—principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre), and their Company’s photos could easily be mistaken for AI-generated images of borderless human beauty and inclusivity. It is one of the most diverse contemporary ballet companies in the world, both in terms of its dancers and its mix of techniques and cultures, proving that dance can be “about removing boundaries rather than reinforcing them.” Complexion’s 29th season fall program, which opens today (Nov. 14) at The Joyce Theater in Chelsea, is no exception.

A collage of ballet dancers
A selection of Complexions Contemporary Ballet’s dancers. Courtesy Complexions Contemporary Ballet

“I’m excited about all of it,” Rhoden, the company’s Principal Choreographer, told Observer. He’s particularly excited to share his newest work, For Crying Out Loud, which is being staged along with several of his other beloved pieces: Ballad Unto (2015), Elegy (2020), Blood Calls Blood (2023) and Endgame/Love One (2022). He is also pleased that the company is “expanding their reach with other voices in the field” with pieces by other choreographers.

SEE ALSO: Contemporary Ballet Is Alive and Well at NYCB

Complexions is known for its highly physical, athletic style. “There’s an extreme approach to movement in terms of the volume of movement but also in terms of how the body is utilized,” Rhoden explained. “We look at things like momentum, ignition and coordination a little more comprehensively. How you put it all together.” Founders Rhoden and Richardson have honed their own technique, “NIQUE”, which they teach in their academy and company. It is a whole-body approach to training that, according to Rhoden, “is basically classical ballet with a torso.” The upper body is very fluid (unusual in ballet) and coordinated with the lower body.

The company’s repertory is made up mostly of Rhoden’s works in this ‘Complexions style,’ so this season allows the dancers to spread their toned wings in new ways.

2023 Complexions Premieres

One of the company premieres is Love Fear Loss (2012) by Brazilian choreographer Ricardo Amarante, former soloist with the Royal Ballet of Flanders. The critically acclaimed neoclassical ballet contains three passionate duets that follow the life and loves of French singer Edith Piaf. The piano score will be performed live by Brian Wong.

The second company premiere is The Dreamers (2016) by New York City Ballet’s rockstar Resident Choreographer Justin Peck. The pas de deux, set to music by Bohuslav Martinů, was originally choreographed for Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar and has never been performed by any company besides NYCB. April Watson with Joe Gonzalez and Chloe Duryea with Vincenzo Di Primo will perform it here.

The first world premiere on the program is Regardless by guest choreographer Jenn Freeman. Freeman comes from a jazz/ballet/modern/contemporary background. As a performer and choreographer, they manage to straddle the dance world from commercial to experimental. Not many can say the same. They were one of the founding members of Kyle Abraham’s company and have worked extensively with Sonya Tayeh. While they have no doubt been inspired by both influential choreographers, their style is all their own. Rhoden described Freeman’s movement vocabulary as “very contemporary, full body. Very grounded and impassioned.”

Ballet dancers in a high arabesque rehearse in a busy studio
Dancers rehearsing Rhoden’s ‘For Crying Out Loud’. Taylor Craft

When Freeman began the commission with Complexions, they were just coming off an intense run of a solo show, Is It Thursday Yet?, and thinking a lot about collaboration. Recently diagnosed with autism, they have become more aware and grateful for the community that allows them to take risks in their creations and life: “I’m doing the things regardless of fear, regardless of being scared, regardless of not knowing, regardless of not knowing what’s on the other side, still opening the door, still walking through.” Those ideas—community and courage—became the foundation of the piece. The musical score was composed by Freeman’s long-time collaborator Price McGuffey, who will be drumming live for the performances.

Rhoden’s world premiere, For Crying Out Loud, is a full-company piece danced en pointe to 10 tracks from U2’s acoustic album Songs of Surrender.  Rhoden is a big fan of U2, and this is not his first time setting a piece to their music. But hearing the iconic songs in a raw “pulled away” style made him want to revisit them. “It’s a work that kind of digs deep,” he said. “It exemplifies the idea of a cry. Not always an emotional sad cry, but a crying out, or a cry inside. I think the piece itself has an emotional undertow to it, but it tells many stories along the way.” The stories are not sequential—he calls it a “wandering narrative”—but they are interconnected.

A Groundbreaking Collaboration

One of the most exciting moments of the season will be the debut of Complexions’ inaugural Poetjournalist-in-Residence Aaron Dworkin. It’s a first for the company, to collaborate with a writer in this way. Actually, it’s a first for any major ballet company. True to their roots, Complexions is breaking ground.

A man in sunglasses and a white coat poses against a wall.
Complexions’ inaugural Poetjournalist-in-Residence, Aaron Dworkin. ©Shawn Lee of SHAWN LEE STUDIOS Southfield, MI

Dworkin is (among many other impressive things) a 2005 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow and former dean and current Professor of Arts Leadership & Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Dworkin met Rhoden while interviewing him for his weekly show Arts Engines. The two immediately hit it off and knew they wanted to work together.

Dworkin coined the term “poetjournalism” which he describes as “journalism in which a news story or other event is presented in poetic form incorporating elements of emotion, opinion and creative illustration.” He has worked as a Poetjournalist-in-Residence at the Rhodam Institute at George Washington University, the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Shar Music and the Ovation TV Network. This is his first collaboration with a dance company.

Inspired by Complexions’ 29th season, Dworkin wrote “Dream On” and will read it at the opening gala performance on November 14 while Christian Burse performs a directed-improv solo. “I’ll be playing in some ways off of what she’s doing,” Dworkin said, “and she’ll be playing off of my words, so I’m really looking forward to it. It should be a lot of fun.”

While many think of poetry and dance as opposite ends of the artistic expression spectrum, Dworkin sees so many connections between the two. “Things that I find in movement, rhythm, the arc of a phrase—all of those things are embedded in poetry. So, when I write a line about ‘sinewy talent’, I see one of their dancers, that motion, that tension in a particular part of their body. Or the release. In the same way that you look at articulation of words and of phrases.”

Complexions will be working with Dworkin on a longer collaboration—hopefully an evening-length work—in 2024.

What to See When

Dream On is at The Joyce from November 14 through November 26. The second movement of Rhoden’s full-company Ballad Unto set to music by Johann Sebastian Bach opens every performance. If you want to see both Freeman’s and Rhoden’s world premieres as well as Amarante’s Love Fear Loss, come to Program A. Program B features Peck’s The Dreamers and Rhoden’s Elegy, Blood Calls Blood and Endgame/Love One. Program C’s lineup is The Dreamers, Elegy, Blood Calls Blood and For Crying Out Loud.


Complexions Contemporary Ballet’s 29th Season Melds Poetry and Dreams