Complexions Contemporary Ballet Dances a Tribute to David Bowie

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Dwight Rhoden called more than a dozen dancers to assemble in a line to go over a bit of choreography. He was checking in on a handful of spots in his ballet before running it all the way through. Each one revealed a glimpse of stylized movement and a snatch of a David Bowie song, nine of which form the score to Star Dust, a tribute to the late music star. A few days before the one-year anniversary of Bowie’s death last year, Complexions Contemporary Ballet was rehearsing the piece in preparation for its New York premiere at the Joyce Theater, where it will get two weeks of performances starting January 24.

“It’s a love note to him, really,” says Rhoden, an artistic director at Complexions who choreographed Star Dust. The former Alvin Ailey dancer, who has created works for Ailey, Dance Theatre of Harlem, New York City Ballet and other major companies, was sitting in a quiet corner of the Joffrey Dance Center in Queens after rehearsal.

David Bowie “was wacky, wild, wonderful, bizarre, beautiful, poignant. His work was all of those things,” Rhoden says. His love letter says, “Thank you for the color, thank you for the energy, thank you for the passion, thank you for the stories.”

Related: 70 David Bowie deep cuts to listen to on what would have been Thin White Duke’s 70th birthday

Star Dust had its first and only performance of 2016 at Detroit’s Music Hall in June, roughly six months after Bowie died from cancer. But Rhoden—who has choreographed works like Rise, to the music of U2; Innervisions, a tribute to Stevie Wonder; and Strum, set to Metallica—had been turning over the idea for a Bowie tribute long before.

His music “was the sound of the time that I grew up in. Through my teenage years and in high school, it was David Bowie everywhere for me,” says Rhoden, who remembers that his mother and older sisters had Bowie playing even before he consciously discovered the musical icon. “And then I saw him. I think it was the visual along with the vocal,” he says. “I was just done, I was so inspired. I wanted to be like that.”

Since adolescence, Rhoden has been drawn to Bowie. “The multiplicity of his personas, and his ability to create these characters and these worlds really, song per song,” he explains. “He was such a chameleon.” The choreographer, who incorporates ballet, modern dance, contemporary, hip-hop and other types of movement into his work, was attracted to the genre-bending theatricality. When Bowie died just two days after the release of his final album, Blackstar, his fans were stunned. Among them was Rhoden, whose idea for a tribute gained an unexpected sense of urgency.

The current iteration of Star Dust, which New Yorkers will have a chance to see later this month, begins with “Lazarus,” the last single Bowie released before his death, and goes backward through his catalog, incorporating songs like “Changes,” “Space Oddity,” “Heroes” (sung by Peter Gabriel) and “Modern Love,” then concluding with “Young Americans.” Rhoden struggled to choose just a handful of songs. ”I love it all,” he says, calling the selection “a negotiating process with myself.” He hopes to eventually expand the roughly 40-minute work into a full evening-length piece.  

The music is the first and most direct connection to Bowie, but the tribute is also in the movement. Rhoden’s vocabulary is infused with androgynous and serpentine spines, articulate hips, small and precise hand gestures, large sweeping lines of the arms, unorthodox head movements, sinewy walks and forced arches—when the feet pop onto pointe or demi-pointe while the knees are bent. If you take away the pointe shoes and the formal dance training and simmer these steps down, you can see something of Bowie standing at the microphone, an understated groove starting in his pelvis as he sings.    

“I feel like the beat gets into the hips,” Rhoden says. “The hands and the arms really conjure…the heart that you would feel inside of his work, the vulnerability,” he adds. “I always thought he had a real vulnerability to him, a real softness as well. He had a lot of heart. And he was humorous too.”

With the specific movement language, Rhoden tried to access those emotions while also yielding to the notion that Bowie’s music “got into your body and made you just jam out.”

Rhoden went back into the Bowie archives to make Star Dust, listening again to albums that span nearly half a century—and sharing playlists and lyrics with the young dancers, all of whom had heard of Bowie but weren’t necessarily that familiar with his music—and also looking through images and videos.

“Sometimes it was like the shape of one of his costumes, or the way he stood onstage,” that inspired aspects of the movement style, Rhoden says. “He had a quirky sort of interesting way of moving his head and turning his eyes and even dancing…. And I tried to incorporate that into the shape of the choreography.”

In its very first performance onstage in Detroit last June, Star Dust received an emotional response and a standing ovation, Rhoden recalls. That’s no surprise. Complexions and Rhoden’s choreography are certainly known to be crowd pleasers. But they have not always been critical darlings.

In 2008, Roslyn Sulcas wrote in The New York Times that Rise “uses well-known songs by the rock group U2 for a bouncy, pumped-up dance of no point whatsoever other than to get the audience members revved up and cheering. They were. But then again, they always are for Complexions.”

Despite the crowd’s obvious enthusiasm, she wrote, “the works, mostly by Mr. Rhoden, are hyperkinetic, flashy exhibitions of physical prowess that mostly scream one thing: ‘Look at me up here with my fabulous body doing fabulous things!’”

Think: the Harlem Globetrotters instead of the Golden State Warriors.

Such a review isn’t unusual. “For a troupe named in honor of the multicultural makeup of its dancers, it remains distressingly bland,” another Times critic, Gia Kourlas, wrote of Complexions’s November 2015 season at the Joyce, which included the Metallica piece. “Where diversity also matters—in its choreography—is where this company falls short,” she added, later identifying “the one time Mr. Rhoden seemed to rise beyond his usual impulses and deliver something with a sense of humanity.”

There are plenty of dangers that come with choreographing to popular music. The potential for kitsch is usually too powerful to overcome, even by the most skilled artists with the best intentions. But Rhoden isn’t afraid to go there. He loves making work to the music of iconic figures and groups. And when he does, “there’s a reverence that I want to pay to them, there’s a respect, there’s a huge legacy that I need to honor and I feel a responsibility to do my best.”

With Star Dust, Rhoden might just have found the right subject and managed to avoid at least some of his previous shortcomings, as well as some of the pitfalls that tend to accompany work set to popular music, if a promising rehearsal is any indication. He is effusive when he talks about Bowie. “I just love his music, love what he’s about, love the theatricality of all [his] creations.” That love comes through in the steps he’s choreographed.

And even if these also aren’t lauded by critics, maybe it doesn’t matter. It’s the audience’s reaction Rhoden seems more concerned about. “I don’t want to have any rules or borders,” he says. And “sometimes I like to send the audience home with something that goes down a little easier,” he adds. “I’m not afraid to entertain you.”

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