Dance troupe aims to heal divisions

Americans from all walks of life are contemplating what it means to live in the United States. Artists are no exception. For many, the search includes questions about the role of culture, country, and color in identity.

For Complexions, the New York-based dance troupe making its Los Angeles debut, these concerns have been at the core of their work since the company was born seven years ago.

"The influences on my choreography have always been other people and real life," says co-founder and principal choreographer Dwight Rhoden. "It's imperative that we respond to real life," adds Desmond Richardson, principal dancer and muse to Mr. Rhoden. "After all, that real tangibleness, that's what dance can do, reach out in a concrete way to touch people."

A recipient of the 1998 New York Foundation for the Arts' Artists Fellowship for choreography, Rhoden says these uncertain times in the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedies are an opportunity for the arts to redefine their contribution.

"For dance, it is the ability to touch; our art is about contact and community," he says.

By design, the company's members are a mirror of the country, the partners say. The 17 dancers - black, Asian and European - reflect the founders' desire for inclusion and diversity. They wanted to have a company that represents the true multicultural nature of the American population.

The dances are full of observations about modern work and love. "From Me to You in About Half the Time" is a romp of connections and missed moments, like those we all experience in our daily lives, Rhoden says. "Growth," created for powerfully built female dancers, comments on the struggles we all encounter in trying to move forward.

Complexions also takes up in its choreography the mandate of investigating what it means to be an American. It takes many strands of uniquely American dance traditions and extends them in new directions.

While the women perform with ballet pointe shoes and throw standard ballet moves around as easily as if they were taking a morning jog, they revel in their straightforward athleticism, a hallmark of the American rejection of traditional 19th-century European dance style.

Rhoden and Richardson, both former principal dancers with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, also celebrate the male dancer. The male duets in the program are by far the most compelling, with their sheer joy in and inventiveness of movement.

Writing in The New York Times, Jack Anderson said, "Mr. Rhoden's choreography, like a lava flow, has undeniable power. There is nothing timid."

The company has also been embraced around the world. The French newspaper Le Figaro noted that Rhoden's work "recalled [dance pioneer] Martha Graham." The Holland Dance Festival said, "Beware: The energy and spirit of this company are contagious."

Dancer and actor Patrick Swayze introduced Complexions at its Los Angeles debut last week. Mr. Swayze, who has commissioned Rhoden to create a dance for Swayze's coming film "Without a Word," said, "We looked around the world for the most cutting-edge choreographers on earth. And this is them."

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