Complexions Contemporary Ballet. Photo by Steven Trumon Gray, courtesy Complexions.

"There Was A Need for Diversity and Inclusion": Complexions Contemporary Ballet Turns 25

Complexions Contemporary Ballet is celebrating their 25th anniversary this year, and we can hardly contain our excitement. Their longstanding commitment to diversity and daring, edgy repertoire has made them an exemplar of American contemporary ballet today. The company's season opener will be held at the Joyce Theater from February 19–March 3. Works include the world premiere of Complexions co-founder and choreographer Dwight Rhoden's WOKE; a compilation spanning 25 years of the company's repertory titled From Then to Now; the return of the David Bowie tribute Star Dust; and the New York City premiere of Bach 25. A gala evening will be held February 21, in which Complexions co-founder and co-artistic director Desmond Richardson will perform for the last time as a full-time company member.

Pointe caught up with Rhoden and Richardson in separate interviews to hear them reflect on what the past 25 years has meant to them, what audiences can expect from their anniversary season, and why Richardson is choosing to step away from his role as full-time company member.


What does this anniversary mean to you?

Dwight Rhoden: It is a momentous occasion. I never thought that I would have a company for 25 years. Actually, I never thought I would have a company period. We started this out as a project in 1994, that would bring together 24 dancers from all around the city. Desmond and I were in Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the time, and it was through the advice of Mr. Ailey himself that we decided to collaborate with dancers from American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Joffrey and even some from downtown. It turned out to really resonate. There was a need for diversity, inclusion, a mix of dance forms, bodies and races. We have been doing that from the beginning. I don't know why it's taken so long for the rest of the dance world to catch up, but we are happy to be celebrating an anniversary that—and I say this with the most humility—changed the game.

Richardson and former Complexions dancer Heather Hamilton on the August/September 2003 cover of Pointe. Photo by Eduardo Patino.

Desmond, why have you chosen to stop performing as a full-time company member, and what will this final performance mean to you?

Desmond Richardson: This performance is a culmination of the many years that I have been on the stage. I started my career at 18, now I'm turning 50, and the whole thing has been amazing. I have danced all over the world in the most amazing houses. I'm in good shape, I can do a jeté anytime I want to, but I want to be able to walk away on my own terms. The body says thank you, but while you can still do a few things, let's pay it forward. Alvin Ailey told me that I would know when it was time to say adieu, and start inspiring in another way. That has finally come to fruition for me. I will still do outside projects, but when it comes to Complexions, I want it to be about the company. I want to share what I have learned with dancers and teach the next generation.

Complexions straddles both the ballet and contemporary/commercial worlds. How have you been able to do this successfully?

Rhoden: That has always been the mantra of the company. That is what Complexions is: dancers who come from different places, backgrounds and training to create something electrifying. When you join the company, you know that you're going to be pushed outside of your comfort zone in one way or another. Our dancers with a more classical background will be challenged just as much as our dancers with a more commercial background. The inspiration they give one another is contagious. We encourage the company members to look at their fellow dancers as vessels to glean new strengths from in a professional way. Plus, it's fairly common for dancers to be training intensively in multiple genres anyway. They all want an edge.

Complexions Contemporary Ballet's Larissa Gerszke. Photo by Steven Trumon Gray, Courtesy Complexions.

Diversity has been a part of your mission from the very beginning. Tell us a little bit about that.

Richardson: We like different body types. It isn't about being cookie cutter for us. While I love tradition and classicism, and I believe there is a valid place for cookie cutter dancers in the world, our contemporary, neoclassical style lends itself to matching the pulse of what's real today. We want our company to be representative of what the country looks like now. That means we think it's important that dance not only incorporates a range of ethnicities, but cultures, genres of music, and dance styles. We want audiences to be able to see themselves in the performers onstage.

What are you most excited for audiences to see this season?

Rhoden: I'm excited about the season in general. This group of dancers is super diverse, and they really represent what it is that Desmond and I have been doing here all these years. We are excited to present everything we have been working on. Including my latest work, WOKE, which is a physical reaction to the daily news. It's about awareness. It looks at social justice and all the different things we are dealing with in our changing world, from gun violence, to immigration, to LGBTQ rights, to women's rights. It doesn't make hard determinations on each subject, but it's a reaction to what we are dealing with.

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Last summer many intensives were canceled or online-only. And the past school year has been spotty and strange for many, as well. All the more reason to look forward to an in-person summer program this year with excitement—but also, perhaps, some nerves. Take heart, says Simon Ball, men's program coordinator at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. "Once you get there the first day, all those fears will be relieved."

Here, Ball and two other experts share their advice for how to make the most of this precious opportunity to dive deep into dance—and how to handle complications that may get in the way, like injury and drama.

1. Show Off...Your Work Ethic

Summer intensives offer a preview of company life: You'll be dancing in a variety of styles over the course of the day, and all day, everyday. But that doesn't mean you have to be company-ready on day one! Though the first day may be filled with placement classes, try not to approach every class as an audition. "This year has taught us that the work is the important thing," says Ball. "Let go of trying to impress. The best impression I ever receive as a teacher is when I see someone receptive to doing things differently, even if that means taking one step backwards initially, to be able to take two steps forward by the end of the summer."

Angelica Generosa, a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, clearly made a splash during her first of three summers at the Chautauqua Institution's School of Dance. At 14, she was cast to dance the pas de deux from Balanchine's Stars and Stripes in the final performance. Generosa describes her younger self as "very eager." She'll be a guest teacher at Chautauqua this summer, and says that a similar eagerness catches her attention: "Dedication, and willingness to try. That twinkle in the eyes when a step is really challenging."

2. Make Friends

Even if friends from your year-round school will be with you this summer, branch out. During breaks at the studio, you may be tempted to spend time on your phone. "Take your headphones off," suggests Margaret Severin-Hansen, director of Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. "Share that ballet video with the person sitting next to you! Their eyes might see it differently; you could learn something. Or find that you have other things in common, too."

Do things outside the studio, too, even if your social circle is limited for safety reasons to a "pod" of classmates. "Sign up for activities," says Generosa. Go on that weekend shopping trip, or out for ice cream. "Be open," she says. "These are people you might see along the way in your future."

Simon Ballet, wearing dark clothing, is shown from behind demonstrating ecart\u00e9 arms while in front of him, a class of teenage ballet students perform d\u00e9velopp\u00e9 ecart\u00e9 devant on pointe in a medium-size studio. The dancers, all girls, wear leotards, pink tights and pointe shoes.

Simon Ball leads class at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.

Courtesy CPYB

3. Stay Healthy

"The first week is tough—you're going to be sore," says Ball. "Prepare yourself." He means that literally. Before your program begins, ramp up cross-training, especially cardio to build your stamina. Severin-Hansen recommends you also keep dancing. It no longer matters that your regular school might be on break: We now know it's possible to take virtual classes from home or in a rented studio. If you're on pointe, make sure to put the shoes on every day, at the very least for some relevés. Keep the skin on your toes tough; the last thing you want is to be sidelined by blisters.

If you are recovering from an injury or managing something persistent like tendonitis, take action even further in advance. Find out if your intensive provides access to physical therapy, and if not, make a plan before you leave home. Learn exercises and massage techniques that you can do on your own, and ask about virtually checking in with your regular doctor or PT. Once you arrive, says Ball, communicate with your instructors. "Chances are it's a common ballet injury that teachers understand. They'll be able to help you."

During her summer intensives, Generosa often suffered flare-ups of inflammation. "I knew the tendonitis in my knees was from over turning out, and in my ankles from lifting my heels in plié." She was able to alleviate some of her pain by dancing more thoughtfully, addressing those habits. She also got creative about taking care of her tendons during off-hours. "I basically did ice baths in Chautauqua Lake."

4. Deal With Disappointment Constructively

Whether you're placed in a lower level than you'd like or were hoping for a soloist role that went to someone else, disappointment is understandable. Try, on your part, to understand too. The faculty may believe you'll thrive more in that particular group, or see a technical issue better solved by not pushing you too fast. If you're not sure exactly what you should be working on, ask. "Trust that you can make the most of your experience, whatever level you're in," says Ball. "Don't be afraid of the conversation."

5. Avoid Drama

Competition is inevitable, but unproductive competition is unnecessary, and bullying unacceptable. Severin-Hansen lays down a very clear guideline: "Nobody should ever feel uncomfortable." If you hear or see anything that bothers you—whether directed at you or someone else—don't hesitate to speak up. "If there's even one person creating drama, you feel it in the class. Summer is short. There's no room for that." Tell the resident advisor in the dorms, or bring the problem to the school administration.

Angelica Generosa performs an arabessque elong\u00e9 on pointe while her partner stands behind her holding her waist and with his left leg in tendu. She holds her left hand on her hip and extends her right arm out to the side with her palm up. Angelica wears a purple leotard, black tights and a white Romantic tutu while Kyle wears a yellow shirt, black tights and tan slippers.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Angelica Generosa (shown here in rehearsal with Kyle Davis) made notes of corrections she'd received and variations she'd worked on during her summer intensives to help retain what she had learned.

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

6. Fuel the Long Day

Depending on your housing arrangement this summer, you may be on your own for buying or preparing your own meals. Generosa recalls her first time living in a dorm and eating cafeteria food: "I wanted to try everything: pizza, chicken tenders, the salad bar, the dessert section—that was also my introduction to coffee." She found, however, that caffeine and sugar rushes would give way to energy crashes, and soon enough her better knowledge prevailed. "I told myself, 'Angelica, get your protein, vegetables, complex carbs—the right kind of energy.'"

Masking requirements may make snacking at the studios slightly more difficult. Nonetheless, there will almost certainly be somewhere you can safely have a nibble in between classes, whether that's a dancers' lounge or socially distanced in the studio itself. Make sure you always have something with you that's easy to munch on during breaks. Ball recommends protein bars or fruits and veggies. "Hydrating is huge," he adds, and suggests bringing packets of powdered electrolyte supplements to add to your water.

7. Retain Corrections

Take a moment each evening, Severin-Hansen advises, to write a few things down. "Say the whole class got a general correction, like 'Use your head.' The person who takes notes will think about it: 'When could I have used my head?' It's all about how you come back the next day and improve."

Generosa set a goal for herself to get better every day. To accomplish this, she would stay late to practice, she says, "so my body could adjust to what I was trying to achieve in that class." If you're inclined to follow her example, ask a friend to practice with you. You can film each other to get a glimpse of your own progress.

At the end of her Chautauqua summers, Generosa made notes of some things she had worked on and which variations she'd learned. "Then it wasn't like I left and that was that. I brought the summer experience with me, for my whole year."

Michael Cousmano, AKA Madame Olga. Courtesy When I'm Her

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