‘Bach to Bowie’: Complexions’ Rhoden brings hit ballet to Stanford
Right now, Complexions Contemporary Ballet leader Dwight Rhoden just wants to choreograph about love.
“That’s it,” the 60-year-old prolific dance creator said over the phone on a hot summer day in Los Angeles, where he had just moved to start a professorship at Chapman University. “I need good stuff. I need all good healing stuff.
Rhoden has had a busy year. As we spoke, the company he co-founded with star dancer Desmond Richardson in 1994 was wrapping up an 18-show engagement in Germany, while Rhoden sat in a mostly empty apartment, waiting for his furniture to arrive and doing the point on the constant demand. For his work.
“There’s a ballet I did in 2019 called ‘Woke’ with music by Kendrick Lamar that toured a lot,” Rhoden said, “and I’m doing another new dance for Pacific Northwest Ballet (from Seattle ) coming in September. The appetite is there.”
In fact, Complexions has been all over the place – 20 countries on five continents. The troupe, a leader in celebrating the diversity of its performers’ workout styles, body types and skin tones, has headlined the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and graced the cover of magazine Point.
But while Rhoden has produced two works for San Francisco Ballet, including last season’s hugely popular “The Promised Land,” his own groundbreaking company has never performed in the Bay Area. That will be corrected next week when Complexions premieres its hit double feature, “Bach to Bowie,” on the outdoor stage of Stanford’s Frost Amphitheater.
The one-night performance is a co-presentation of Stanford Live and San Francisco Ballet, which will follow Complexions’ August 3 schedule with its own shows on August 5 and 6, hoping to turn its second summer appearance into Stanford into an annual tradition. But the San Francisco Ballet, which contributes to the production costs of the Complexions show, felt it was important to bring Rhoden’s troupe as well.
“Dwight Rhoden has been a wonderful colleague in our own studios,” said San Francisco Ballet Executive Director Danielle St. Germain. “And we look forward to introducing members of the public who may not already know him to his outstanding company.”
For Rhoden, the corporate commitment to Stanford is just one part of an exceptionally busy professional life. His teaching position at Chapman will soon allow him to teach two classes a week, while continuing to co-direct Complexions, based in New York.
“I’m used to it,” he said of the geographic challenges, noting that he and Richardson decided not to have a presence in the business. But beyond his busy schedule, simply keeping up with the societal challenges of recent years has also taken a toll on an artist who said he’s letting the world and all of its mess and heartache in.
“I tend to be a person who choreographs what I’m actually going through,” he said, referring to “all the drama we’ve been through — the pandemic, working for racial justice, equality gender, war”. All of these pressures contributed to the tense and ultimately cathartic world of “The Promised Land,” which Rhoden choreographed for San Francisco Ballet in 2021.
As Esteban Hernández, director of San Francisco Ballet, the star dancer of “The Promised Land,” said, “This ballet was about pulling ourselves together and moving forward. It was very personal, to About frustration, helplessness, loss of control.
The Frost Amphitheater engagement will feature Rhoden’s lightning-fast movement style, but will highlight another side of Rhoden’s interests. The first half, “Bach 25”, was originally choreographed to celebrate 25 years of Complexionse anniversary; it’s stripped down, “neoclassical, a very athletic celebration of that music,” Rhoden said. The second half, “Stardust,” uses David Bowie songs to create “almost the antithesis of Bach’s piece,” Rhoden said. “Very theatrical, full of character interpretation, lip-synching, even – great rock-glam type ballet.”
Although he didn’t choreograph “Stardust” until after Bowie’s death in 2016, Rhoden had long thought about doing the ballet. Growing up in Dayton, Ohio as a “mixed-race kid”, he identified with Bowie’s “chameleon qualities”. He played drums in the marching band and enjoyed listening to both his grandmother’s classical piano and his father’s gospel albums, then fell in love with street dance styles like popping and locking.
Rhoden didn’t begin his formal dance training until he was 18, when he joined the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company and then Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal. Then, after three previous rejections, he entered the prestigious Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. It was there that he met Richardson, one of the most charismatic and acclaimed dancers of the late 20e century, who became both Rhoden’s creative muse and, for 18 years, his romantic partner.
At first, the two thought Complexions, their side project, would be a one-off performance. “Then we realized we had something big,” Rhoden recalls.
“Twenty-eight years ago, when we brought dancers from the Joffrey and the American Ballet Theater together with modern dancers, it was very rare, the lines (between styles) were very tight.” Those lines quickly loosened up in the dance world. But ballet has been much slower to follow Complexions’ lead when it comes to other types of diversity, especially skin color. Consider: Only since 2015 has ABT had a black lead dancer. And it wasn’t until last year that a tip company launched a line of shoes in shades of brown satin.
For Rhoden, the idea of Complexions has always been simple. “We celebrate the idea that we are different types of beauty, and thank goodness we’re not all the same,” he said.
Not only are many skin tones represented, but also some of the male dancers are short, some dancers are androgynous in their self-expression, and one female dancer is 6ft 2in tall. “We want you to come to a show, look at the stage and feel like you could see yourself up there, part of your story or part of your life.”
Reviews have generally been elated, with the exception of those from the main local newspaper Complexions, which somewhat mystifies Rhoden. But he got into the habit of “keeping on doing the work”.
“It’s not about me, it’s not about Desmond,” he said. “It’s about something good we’re doing for the world, and I’m happy to be back. I just want the dancers and the art to shine.
With that in mind, with little in his still empty apartment to distract him, Rhoden turned to the thought of his day ahead, and what was to follow.
“Inspiration is everywhere,” he says, “but just yesterday I was like, ‘I want to choreograph wonderful, beautiful stuff. We don’t dig love like we could, because it’s hard. I’m talking about compassion between people, understanding. Let’s not go to our separate corners and step back, ready to fire.
Dyed Contemporary Ballet: 8 p.m. Wednesday August 3. $15-$140; Frost Amphitheater, 351 Lasuen Street, Stanford. 650-724-2464. live.stanford.edu.
San Francisco Ballet: 8 p.m. from Friday to Saturday August 5-6. $15 to $250. Frost Amphitheater, 351 Lasuen Street, Stanford. 650-724-2464. live.stanford.edu