REVIEW: Bach to Bowie 2019 (Complexions Contemporary Ballet)

Review by Brigitte Knight

[Let’s Dance]

Created by Artistic Directors Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, New York-based Complexions Contemporary Ballet celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2019. The company is clear about its vision for dance-making; “…reinventing dance through a ground-breaking mix of methods, styles and cultures…” and challenging traditions and conventions while maintaining technical excellence. Their first visit to New Zealand since 2010, CCB is touring its full company of 16 dancers with Bach to Bowie, a work in two acts.

Bach 25 is Act One of Bach to Bowie, choreographed by Rhoden in celebration of the company’s quarter century. The work opens powerfully and motors along to a score of Bach selections at lightning pace. The cast are representative of the CCB aesthetic; technically strong and outstandingly diverse in terms of height, body type, ethnicity and appearance. Costumed in metallics and performing in flats, Bach 25’s choreography is detailed and swift, with emphasis on high extensions, sliding, and a vast array of entrances and exits. Large and small group unison is unfortunately not as accurate as I had expected, and I was occasionally aware of arm movements being cut off or missed. There are certainly challenges with getting diverse dancers moving through dense choreography rapidly, and there is room for clarified ensemble work here. Simon Plant is the standout amongst the men in Bach 25, performing with effortless fluidity, grace and a centered sense of rhythm. Of the women, Shanna Irwin is the master of control, articulation, power and length.

The much-anticipated second act of Bach to Bowie is Star Dust choreographed in homage to the “…iconic and chameleon spirit…” of David Bowie. Set to a score of 11 of Bowie’s magnificent songs, Star Dust has all the ingredients of a modern classic dance work. Costumes are coordinated but different for each dancer, drawing on a deconstruction of Bowie’s Aladdin Sane makeup, and include cameos from some impressive platform boots for the men. Michael Korsh’s lighting and technical design are more ambitious than Bach 25, moving between rock concert and theatrical styles, most memorable when working through a sparkling gold fringed curtain the size of a full backdrop. Bowie’s songs are, of course, dazzling and joyous at full volume, and the dancers power through this solid 42-minute choreography – a feat of stamina and attack.

Rhoden’s approach to all of the songs is somewhat standardised: a featured male dancer lip-syncs most of the lyrics, drag-style, while members of the company dance the choreography in small or large groups. The lip-synch is effective the first time, but the delivery weakens as the dancers grow fatigued. Disappointingly, every song receives the same drag stylisation, regardless of its emotional content and meaning. I felt this clash most profoundly with Young Americans and Lazarus – the former for the choreography’s inattention to the song’s wry feminist lens on the failure of the American Dream. Bowie fans will appreciate the insensitivity of treating the transcendental Lazarus as a light-hearted pop song. Although restrained within the pop framework, the free jazz harmoniser saxophone solo lays down an improvisation challenge to any approaching choreographer. Similarly, opportunities for nuance are missed with Modern Love, a potential vehicle for challenges to conventional binary-gender norms.

Moments of contrast are infrequent but welcome – one dancer crossing the stage side-on through the silence between songs, an intricately partnered pas de trois for Jillian Davis and two men, competent pointe work from a male dancer treated with due respect rather than parody. Overall, Star Dust’s movement vocabulary is one-dimensional and commercial rather than artistic. While the choreography and dancers are technically proficient, the content of the performance delivers the same emotional content as a cruise ship show: energetic, slick, feel good, but with nothing to chew on. Where Bowie was a courageous, non-conformist pioneer, Bach to Bowie is traditionally structured, commercial and safe.

Bach to Bowie plays The Civic until 12 May. 

Choreography: Dwight Rhoden
Music: Johann Sebastian Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach & David Bowie
Lighting & Technical Design: Michael Korsch

Costume Design: Christine Darch

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