Portland Center Stage Rent Portland Oregon

Complexions: Dancing like life and death in America

In its White Bird series performance, the contemporary company brought the crowd to its feet with reflections on life outside the theater doors.


Complexions Contemporary Ballet dancer Tim Stickney and the Company in WOKE. Photo: Nina Wurtzel.

The packed Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall was electric last Wednesday night in anticipation of seeing Complexions Contemporary Ballet in the White Bird dance series. It never ceases to amaze me how dedicated Portland audiences are to dance, which is admirable, except that ticket sales never seem to equate to financial stability for dance artists. Complexions, directed by former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancers Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, performed two works: WOKE and LOVE ROCKS, both choreographed by Rhoden.

In 1994, Rhoden and Desmond brought together 24 dancers from dance companies around New York City to collaborate. They created a company diverse in dance style and inclusive of body types, skin colors, and ethnicities – a type of company that was desperately needed. They wanted people to see themselves in the performers on the stage. The hybrid dance style they created continues to evolve, depending on who is in the company and what they bring. That means the choreography combines every dance form under the sun, but for the most part, the women do it all in pointe shoes. The choreography is complex, muscularly powerful, dynamic, quick, and off-kilter. It shatters into a million pieces, moving in all directions seemingly at once, and then reassembles back into familiar forms.

Choreographed in 2018, WOKE is a physical reaction to the news, danced to a framework of song titles like “Killing Spree,” “Rank and File,” “Pray,” and “Doomed,” among others, that paint the bleak picture of the current human condition in America. The work touches on gun violence, police brutality, poverty, immigration, and more.

Woke was performed for us on the second anniversary of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota;  eleven days after a racist gunman murdered ten people in the Tops grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York; eight days after a disgruntled Chinese nationalist killed one person and wounded five others at a Taiwanese church in California; and one day after 19 kids and two teachers were murdered in Uvalde, Texas. According to the Gun Violence Archive, 18 people have been killed and 88 injured by gun violence since Uvalde. These events framed the dance. 

But when I looked for literal meaning in the choreography, I didn’t see it. Instead, I felt emotion from musical melodies, reacted to coincidental connections between song lyrics and dance steps, oohed and ahhed at the dancer’s technical feats and boundless energy, and saw poetry in how the choreography kept pace with the syllables from the words in the songs. I also imagined the dancers were writing out the lyrics with their arms and legs—lyrics from songs like “Killing Spree,” written by Logic in 2017:

Hashtag pray for this, pray for that

But you ain’t doing shit, get away from that

Blame it on black, blame it on a white

Blame it on a gun, blame it on a Muslim

Everybody wanna blame him, blame her

Just blame it on a mothafucka killing everyone!

and “Suli Breaks R.I.P.,” written, in 2013:

To all the victims of the gun crime and the knife crime,

To them I say R.I.P.

But when I say R.I.P.

I don’t just mean rest in peace,

I mean rewind it please,

So we can remain in peace,

Lyrics that could have been written yesterday, and remain relevant Every. Single. Day., here in America. 

Complexions Contemporary Ballet in LOVE ROCKS. Photo: Steven Pisano

The dancers in Woke were speaking to us in every way they could. Which is heartbreaking, considering who they are, the color of their skin, how young they are, and the subjects they were dancing about, which is a lot to shoulder. Will anyone listen to them? I hope so, but I doubt it. 

The costumes for Woke were a mix of leotards, tights, and shirts, with some men wearing short black skirts. Seeing the men dancing in skirts helped my brain let go of the expectation of gender roles in the choreography. While watching a duet between dancer Jillian Davis, who is 6-foot-2 plus a few more in pointe shoes, with an equally tall partner, it struck me how gender-fluid this moment was. Because they were both the same height and Davis had an androgynous look about her, it could easily have been two men dancing together, with one wearing pointe shoes. How cool would that be if dancers could choose which role they wanted to dance regardless of their assigned gender at birth? Quite a few male-identified ballet dancers are talented in point work and I’m sure would love to dance female roles.

Complexions Contemporary Ballet in LOVE ROCKS. Photo: Justin Chao.

I never understood the swooning, crying, band groupie mentality until I saw LOVE ROCKS: ballet meets rock and roll, with energetic and impassioned dancing about love and all of its facets to the music of Lenny Kravitz. His music is multicultural and combines elements from rock, blues, soul, R&B, funk, jazz, reggae, hard rock, psychedelic, pop, folk, and ballads. 

Like the music’s eclectic mix of elements, the costumes, designed by Christine Darch, were a blend of materials from multi-strap black mesh leotards with crisscrossed lines and spikey tutus for the women; shiny lycra pants and black-feathered harnesses strapped around bare chests for the guys. Style elements that look like they were taken straight out of Kravitz’s style playbook. 

The choreography had a softer, sensual quality, with less punctuation than Woke, but it was no less daring and dramatic. A move I could repeatedly watch, among others, was the slide that the women did in pointe shoes in a wide fourth position across the stage. Tom Cruise did a similar move, but in socks, in the movie Risky Business. I didn’t understand the solo male character, the only guy on stage with a shirt, who moved in and out of the dancers but never really danced. Sometimes I thought of him as the center of the piece, a conductor, ringmaster, or lonely guy? I wasn’t sure. I wish I could see the dance again with this question in mind. 

When the ballet ended, I surprised myself by spontaneously leaping to my feet, clapping wildly and hooting and hollering at the dancers in appreciation of their work. The experience was immensely satisfying. It was so visceral that I felt exhausted at the end, as if I had just danced the ballet myself.

Jamuna Chiarini is a dance artist, producer, curator, and writer, who produces DanceWatch Weekly for Oregon ArtsWatch. Originally from Berkeley, Calif., she studied dance at The School of The Hartford Ballet and Florida State University. She has also trained in Bharatanatyam and is currently studying Odissi. She has performed professionally throughout the United States as a dancer, singer, and actor for dance companies, operas, and in musical theatre productions. Choreography credits include ballets for operas and Kalamandir Dance Company. She received a Regional Arts & Culture Council project grant to create a 30-minute trio called “The Kitchen Sink,” which was performed in November 2017, and was invited to be part of Shawl-Anderson’s Dance Up Close/East Bay in Berkeley, Calif. Jamuna was a scholarship recipient to the Urban Bush Women’s Summer Leadership Institute, “Undoing Racism,” and was a two-year member of CORPUS, a mentoring program directed by Linda K. Johnson. As a producer, she is the co-founder of Co/Mission in Portland, Ore., with Suzanne Chi, a performance project that shifts the paradigm of who initiates the creation process of new choreography by bringing the artistic vision into the hands of the dance performer. She is also the founder of The Outlet Dance Project in Hamilton, N.J.