Complexions Dance Company brings complex steps to Des Moines

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By Laura Stebbins, ThePerryNews Arts and Culture

“Let go and just fly.”

That’s the advice Ballet Mistress and Rehearsal Director Christina Johnson gives to the dancers of Complexions Contemporary Ballet and hopes they bring to their performances.  We want the audience to “leave the theater with a spunk in their step,” Johnson said in a pre-performance talk Saturday.

Complexions Contemporary Ballet was founded 20 years ago by artistic directors Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson (both former Alvin Ailey dancers with lengthy and impressive resumes) when they pulled together an eclectic group of high-caliber professional dancers who were so excited to be part of the project that they rehearsed for free.

According to the program at Saturday night’s Des Moines Civic Center performance, “Complexions’ groundbreaking mix of methods, styles and cultures has created an entirely new and exciting vision of human movement. Dance should be about removing boundaries, not reinforcing them.  Whether it be the limiting traditions of a single style, period, venue or culture, Complexions transcends them all, creating an open, continually evolving form of dance that reflects the movement of our world—and all its constituent cultures—as an interrelated whole.”

Johnson was one of the founding members of Complexions and discussed its development during a 20-minute talk in the civic center’s Stoner Studio Theater. She described how amazing it was to watch the different dancers and to expand your own dance vocabulary.

Today the dancers must be proficient in classical ballet to be considered for the company, Johnson said, but then Complexions takes the pure lines of classical ballet and distorts them and pulls them apart.  Joining the company requires not only being a masterful technician, she said, but also being a passionate mover and someone who wants to deepen their craft.

Dancers are hired for their “whole person” and not just their technique, according to Johnson.  She compared the dancers to the paints used by a painter and said they are hand-picked by founding Artistic Director and Choreographer Dwight Rhoden in order to ensure he has the “highest quality paints in the room.”

Rhoden and the rest of the artistic team then push the dancers out of their comfort zones and work to inspire their growth as artists.  They challenge the artists and their ideas of themselves as dancers, Johnson said.

For a performance day such as Saturday, Johnson says that the dancers begin the day with a 90-mintes ballet class followed by three hours of rehearsal in which they run through the entire show full out. Then comes a dinner break, followed by putting on make-up and getting ready for the show.

It’s “refining, refining, refining,” said Johnson, “repeat, refine, deepen.”  It is this process of working so well and hard during rehearsal that allows the dancers to “let go and just fly” and “be really fully 100 percent present,” she said.

Since dancing is a career choice in which dancers are throwing their passion into a relatively short career, they realize the “preciousness to every moment they get to have on stage,” said Johnson.

The 14 dancers in the Complexions company, ranging in age from 21 to 26, did indeed “let go and fly” during their three-act show, performing to music ranging from Bach to Billy Porter to “Amazing Grace.” They ended with a high-energy performance to a suite of songs by Stevie Wonder that brought the audience to its feet.

In addition to the one-night-only performance, Des Moines Performing Arts arranges for artists in the Dance Series to engage directly with the community.  Earlier in the day, the Complexions dancers taught some lucky third graders a portion of the choreography to the piece “Innervisions.” Similarly, Rehearsal Director Johnson conducted a pre-show talk for ticket holders, and several of the dancers participated in a post-show audience question-and=answer session.

Tickets are on sale now for Season Six of the Dance Series, so it is not too late, as Johnson said, to “get some spunk in your step.”

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