Complexions Contemporary Ballet, presented by UtahPresents at Kingsbury Hall, was a heart-swelling, breath-stopping show. Performing two works that drew from wildly disparate aesthetic and musical realms, the company showed both the best of what they are and an infectious triumph in something unexpected. It was a beautifully refreshing display of the possibilities of ballet and the rare magic of a successful, expansive, and passionate homage by the skilled artists of one discipline to the inspiration given long ago by the hero of another.
Complexions is a primary example of a “contemporary ballet” company, as I was first exposed to in my youth. Others who grew up dancing at a similar time might remember the same reverence for the elastic freedom that co-founders Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson helped popularize, along with others like Alonzo King. Their movement style and intentionally cultivated diversity became something of a torch for students who struggled to fit into the ballet mold (which, I’d argue, is every ballet student). When I took class from the articulately inspirational Richardson at the University of Utah the last time the company was in town, I glowed and vibrated for weeks afterward.
In the playbill, Complexions noted that their “foremost innovation is to remove boundaries, not reinforce them.” Bach 25, the first work on the program, evoked that vision with a clarity and precision that illustrated exactly why the company is renowned. The piece was steadfastly true to what one might expect: statuesque men and women in herculean form; bare whispers of flesh-toned leotards and briefs; flashing crispness and aching intensity; heart-stopping lines and tilts galore; dramatic shadow and light; choreography that teased out and magnified tiny musical subtleties; complex individual dynamics layered to create an explosively undulating, many-armed whole.
The removal of boundaries was a particular theme in Bach 25. In the piece, dancers pointedly played with classical ballet formations, steps, structures, and gestures to illustrate the subversion and expansion of each; not just using their bodies, though shaped by ballet, to inform and enhance contemporary movement divorced from ballet steps. Choreographic tools like diagonals, windowed lines, and canons were apparent, as were all the most recognizable standbys of classical ballet vocabulary – penchés, passés, bourrées, developés, extended balances, traveling lifts. While these forms were sometimes presented in their most familiar context, inserted among more contemporary structures and movements they sometimes also twisted, were reorganized and flipped, and distilled down to their essence.
Partnering was also used first to bring forth a motif and then to upend it. Couples were mostly male/female pairings, with much of the choreography a referent of classical pas de deux, but many steps typically assigned to a particular gender were fluidly passed back and forth.
When any company does “A Tribute to ____,” I am usually not into it. No matter how much of a crowd-pleaser a mashup of beloved hits may be, it is hard to get the tribute itself to stand up in comparison. But I have to admit that Complexions’ Star Dust, a tribute to David Bowie that the company premiered shortly after the artist’s death in 2016, kind of had me. It was huge and electrifying. It was full of both campy, uncontained silliness and a melodramatically heightened yet earnest pathos. My chest filled, tight with glee, and I experienced waves of nostalgia at least a couple times.
The success of Star Dust hinged on a few structural choices. First was the absolutely outlandish technical and lighting direction from the company’s resident designer Michael Korsch (his lighting in Bach 25 was also strikingly superb and functioned as a key element in that work as well). Over-the-top choices included a curtain that lifted on a 3D light show of splintered, front-facing beams and spots arranged as a giant star, for the opening number set to “Lazarus” (from the 2016 album Blackstar); rich, saturated colors; wildly sweeping lights; and a massive backdrop of gold streamers that re-appeared throughout the piece for dancers to burst in and out of. Each such effect transported us into the imagined circus of an arena concert, or even to the place where dance is arguably most at home in popular music – the music video.
This impression was only strengthened by the goofy, delightful choice to have a Bowie character dancing and strutting front and center, lip-syncing to many of the songs while the other dancers swirled around them. Several dancers rotated through this role between and during songs, delightfully hamming it (all the way) up. By leaning into conventions that regularly accompany that kind of music, Complexions was able to create the “visual imprint,” as billed in company marketing materials, needed to capture Bowie’s spirit.
And of course, the dancing itself was technically incredible, drawing a throughline with much of the same type of movement as in the Bach piece. Balletic qualities were adjusted perfectly to be given a new life and peppered with moves reminiscent of the silliest, most gleeful, late-night dance party. Some of best moments were the blinding opener, “Lazarus,” with the unequaled charisma of Brandon Gray as Bowie; Jared Brunson setting off a spiraling chorus of dancers violently swinging their arms, air-guitar style, in “Life on Mars”; and the hugely magnetic performance of Maxfield Haynes in “Space Oddity.”
Also great was the slowed down, sad-eyed presentation of “Heroes,” sung by Peter Gabriel, that featured Jillian Davis in a balletic pas de quatre as well as Brandon Gray. The heavy drama of this section ended with the cheesy melodrama of dancers in a line staring out across the front of the stage, while one dancer walked among them, falling and clutching at them - until he erupted into a twisting, flapping, chicken dance that reverberated back to the others, who in turn catapulted into spasms of delight to the tune of “Modern Love.”
The final movement of Star Dust featured Bowie’s “The Young Americans,” actual red, white, and blue lights, and the full company, spaced out to fill the stage, writhing and shaking in what can only be described as a riotous dance party. As I watched the joy and fury in their bodies became more intense and more palpable, and just as I began to catch a feeling of hope in a “young America” myself, the curtain came down.
Emily Snow is a Denver native who now calls Salt Lake City home. She has most recently been seen performing with Municipal Ballet Co. and with Durian Durian, an art band that combines electronic music and postmodern dance.