Rhoden, Dwight 1962–
Dwight Rhoden 1962–
Dwight Rhoden is a formidable name on the contemporary dance scene. First known as a dancer with the Alvin Ailey Company, he later distinguished himself as a choreographer whose high-energy compositions seem to express the tenor of the age. With star dancer Desmond Richardson, Rhoden founded a dance company called Complexions. This diversified group of dancers of many races and dance backgrounds has become a primary vehicle by which Rhoden offers his talent to the world, though he has received commissions from major dance companies throughout the United States. A complete auteur, Rhoden looks to all aspects of a performance, including the musical scores, set and costume designs, and lighting, to express to audiences his personal vision. For its powerful, passionate performances that center both on the strength of the human spirit and rejoice in diversity, the company has earned an international reputation. As the primary choreographer of Complexions, Rhoden has earned an international reputation as well.
Rhoden was born in 1962 and grew up in Dayton, Ohio. He had long been musical, playing the flute, clarinet and drums in high school, but until that time his dance experience was limited to the popular street dancing of the late 1970s. When a friend suggested he try studying at the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, he found himself at age eighteen immersed in dance under the tutelage of the company’s founder Jeraldyne Blunden, whom he described as a “tremendous mentor.” “I went over to Dayton, and that was it. I was hooked,” he recalled to Denver Post’s Glenn Giffin. Rhoden was a hard worker and fast learner, teaching his body to perform intricate maneuvers with style. After dancing for six years with the Dayton company, Rhoden left to join the Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, where he spent a four-year stint.
Rhoden auditioned three times for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, before he was asked to join the company. “Dwight started in the company around 1986,” Judith Jamison remembered to Barbara Hoover of the Detroit News. “I loved the way he dances. He was the oddest and most wonderful, strange creature on stage.” After a time, Rhoden appeared in many leading roles with the company, alternating in these with dancer Desmond Richardson, with whom he became friends. Yet while Richardson thrived on dancing, more and more, Rhoden found he preferred choreography, especially as his body began to age.
In 1991 Judith Jamison, an Ailey company dancer who became artistic director in 1989 after Ailey’s death, commissioned Rhoden’s first work for the main company. Rhoden would continue to dance and choreograph for the Alvin Ailey company for the next three years. Then, in 1994, Rhoden wanted to strike out on his own. So, with Richardson, he left the Ailey company to found their own company, Complexions, for which Rhoden would choreograph some thirty works over the next decade. The troupe bills itself as more than a nod to the deliberate diversity of the dancers. “Our company is extremely diverse, Asian, Spanish, redheads with freckles, black—it runs the gamut,” Rhoden told Diane Haithman of the Los Angeles Times. “When we perform all over the world,
Born in 1962, in Columbus, OH. Education: Studied with Jeraldyne Blunden, at the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, and with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre.
Career: Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, dancer, 1976-82; Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, dancer, 1902-86; Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, dancer, 1987-94; Complexions, co-founder and choreographer, 1994–; guest choreographer, 1994–.
Awards; New York Foundation for the Arts Award, 1998; Choo San Goh Award for choreography, 2001.
Address: Office—Complexions, P.O. Box 2087, Grand Central Station, New York, NY 10163.
it’s about more than just performance—I think our message reads loud and clear. But the name Complexions also has to do with our appreciation of many different types of dancers from many different backgrounds—not just racially and ethnically, but in terms of training.”
Within four years after its creation, Complexions was performing across the United States and at major European dance festivals. Its roster of dancers varies, with dancers being asked to join the troupe, but the nucleus remains about thirty. Its touring group ranges from sixteen to twenty dancers, and it performs between fifteen and thirty weeks out of the year, depending on the schedules of its core performers. Another way that Complexions differs from other troupes in its composition is the age range. Performers range in age from nineteen to fifty, a facet that allows older dancers to pass on the depth of their artistry to younger performers. Moreover, because the dancers—Rhoden and Richardson included—work for other companies too, they are able to bring their new knowledge and experiences back to enrich the troupe. Rhoden delights in creating a complete performer, so dancers, depending on their talents, may sing, or design costumes, sets or lighting. Viewers have taken to the diversity of Complexions members, choreography, and multimedia theatricality. And unlike many young companies, it quickly garnered the sponsorship that has made it a financially stable artistic group.
Dance Magazine reviewer Sara Wolf once likened Rhoden to a kid in a proverbial candy shop because he has so many resources at hand in the abilities of the Complexions members. Indeed, Rhoden is inspired by the dancers in the troupe and likes to imagine a particular dancer’s body when choreographing, as he confided to Haithman, “I’m not one of those people who can choreograph on my own body; I have to have a body in front of me as an inspiration.” Rhoden has created a number of pieces with Richardson in mind, and Richardson, teasing Rhoden, told Haithman, “Dwight—he’s an odd one; he cannot remember any of his choreography once he gets it out.” In his mind’s eye, Rhoden visualizes a shadowy form moving, then gets a specific person in mind. “So if he were choreographing for you,” Richardson continued, “he would know your body, look at your body, and know what he can do to make you the best you can look.”
Although several critics have compared Rhoden’s style to that of William Forsythe, director of the Frankfurt Ballet, in Germany, Rhoden sees his work as being influenced by a number of traditions. His dances often use lots upper body and torso work with detailed leg work and as Rhoden stated, “pretty edgy extreme use of the body. There’s lots of speed, lots of pulled-off angles. And there is an intensity level that runs through the work.” Commentators “don’t really know what to do with me, to be honest. I consider myself classically trained,” he told Theodore Bale of the Boston Herald. “I understand the art of dance, and I feel like I could create for anyone. I have some background in musical theater, and with the Ailey repertoire, which is pretty vast. I’ve even done some works by (South African choreographer and ballet director) John Cranko and Jerome Robbins. I’ve had experiences all over the globe. So a lot of times when people see my work, they are getting something that they’re not expecting. I think dance is all-encompassing, and for me it would be really hard to categorize what I do, except to say that it is contemporary.”
Several pieces from Rhoden’s burgeoning repertoire have caught the attention of critics and became signature pieces. One such piece is the male/female duet “Ave Maria” from the larger work Grapes of Wrath. Drawing on his liturgical experiences being raised in the Catholic Church, Rhoden choreographed “Ave Maria.” Traditionally, an “Ave Maria” is a reverential prayer to the Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Son of God in the Christian faith. And the liturgy of the Mass in the Catholic Church uses music, apparel, light, and pageantry to help express truths that cannot only be grasped by the intellect, but the whole of a person. Rhoden deconstructed his childhood experience of the liturgy in his own “Ave Maria,” what he saw simultaneously as its holiness and sensuality. “You don’t always see religion and sensuality in the same duet,” Rhoden said in the Denver Post. I always thought the church had a sensual nature to it, and this is my interpretation.”
Another signature piece is the deliciously titled Chocolate Sessions, an abstract piece for a sextet of male and female dancers. In the Boston Herald, Rhoden explained Chocolate Sessions as his interpretation of the Ailey company’s “rich, dense, layered legacy.” He continued, “I compare the dance to chocolate, of course because it has something to do with beautiful brown skin and the visceral-ness of the movement.” Viewers saw the piece as an amalgam of styles, both classic and modern, which burst out from the dancers like flashes from a strobe light. Even shocking was the choreographed throwing of a female dancer, legs in splits, who lands in the arms of three male dancers.
Dance critics either love or hate Rhoden’s work, variously praising his synthesis of various traditions, or decrying the lack of cohesion in his works. Despite any negative reviews, Rhoden has remained true to his own artistic vision. Jack Anderson of the New York Times aptly likened Rhoden’s choreography to a lava flow, with “undeniable power,” and like that red-hot flowing liquid stone, the prolific Rhoden has followed, and will likely continue to follow, his own path.
Albuquerque Journal, July 29, 2001.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, GA), January 20, 2002.
Back Stage, January 17, 1997.
Boston Herald, April 13, 2001; April 19, 2001.
Dance Magazine, December 1991; February 1997; December 1999; August 2000; February 2001; April 2001; February 2002; March 2002.
Dayton Daily News (Dayton, OH), July 28, 2002.
Denver Post, January 26, 2001.
Detroit News, October 18, 2002; March 28, 2003.
Independent Sunday (London, England), May 3, 1998.
Los Angeles Times, January 15, 2001; March 17, 2001; October 28, 2001; November 3, 2001; November 17, 2001; January 26, 2003.
Morning Call (Allentown, PA), October 9, 1998. New York Times, January 10, 1997; November 25, 2002; December 23, 2002;
Seattle Post Intelligencer (Seattle, WA), April 12, 1999.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), June 28, 1996; September 1, 2000; December 15, 2000; January 15, 2002.
Washington Times, January 26, 2002.
Complexions Official Website, www.complexions-dance.org (July 23, 2003).
“Complexions Press Release,” Black NLA, www.blacknla.com/news/prnews/complexions.html (January 23, 2003).
—Jeanne M. Lesinski
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