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REVIEW: Complexions Ballet Dazzles

San Diego Story

Janice Steinberg

May 23, 2023


Propulsive, exuberant, thrilling, Complexions Contemporary Ballet brought dazzling technique and stratospheric energy to the Civic Theatre Saturday. The audience whooped, especially for “Star Dust,” set to David Bowie songs, in the second half of the program.

The New York City troupe, presented by La Jolla Music Society, opened with four shorter pieces. (This was a pivot from a planned all-Bach ballet because a dancer was unavailable due to a family emergency.) All the dances were by Dwight Rhoden, who co-founded the company, with Desmond Richardson, in 1994 and is its principal choreographer.

An excerpt from the Bach “Hissy Fits” (2006) introduced several Complexions signatures: frantic moves that resolve in clean-edged poses, the sense that dancers are driven by some internal pulse even when the music is calm. And Rhoden’s a genius at composition, offering the pleasures of horizontal lines, clusters, moments where a single dancer or duo take center-stage.

The work is also fun, with goofy comic bits. And those bodies! Sleek, flesh-toned costumes highlighted exquisitely muscled legs and superb lines.

In “Choke” (2006), Christian Burse and Marissa Mattingly’s furiously-paced balletic moves echo the storm in the Summer concerto of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The solo “Elegy” is a 2020 piece dedicated to the memory of Rhoden’s and Richardson’s mothers. Set to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, it features the riveting presence of 6’2″ Jillian Davis, doing gorgeous extensions and balances.

Delicious, athletic partnering between Tatiana Melendez and Thomas Dilley marks “Pocket Symphony” (2023). At one point, Dilley presses her over his head as she holds a horizontal split. The piece is set to the percussive strings of a Sven Helbig composition titled “Frost,” and lighting designer Matt Taylor created lovely cones of white light, like swirling snow.

“Star Dust” (2016) opens with David Bowie’s haunting “Lazarus” and a visual tease: Joe Gonzalez is doing an amazing job of lip-syncing … or are we actually hearing his voice, which sounds uncannily like Bowie’s? It turns out each of the nine songs is lip-synced by a different, usually male, dancer. It’s a nice way to let individual company members strut their stuff, though no one else matches Gonzalez’s lip-syncing chops.

Having a central “singer” proved a terrific crowd-pleaser. On the downside, it often turned the company into backup dancers. I kept straining—through Michael Korsch’s sometimes murky lighting—to catch high-momentum pirouettes, mobile torsos, quick lifts and turns, and flirty ponytail-flipping.

The dance element held its own in central sections where the women wore pointe shoes and walked as if they were stabbing the stage. Davis, her hair colored Bowie orange, again captivated, with two men supporting her in adagio balances. I wanted more moments like that.

Still, the piece is fun and terrifically visual, with vampy costumes (by Christine Darch) clearly inspired by Bowie’s personas and a gold glitter curtain. And how often do you hear a ballet audience roar like they’re at a rock concert?