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DANCE REVIEW

Complexions dancers rise to the occasion

Complexions Contemporary Ballet dancers performed their closer, ‘‘Rise,’’ at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston. Complexions Contemporary Ballet dancers performed their closer, ‘‘Rise,’’ at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston. (Jae Man Joo for The Boston Globe)
By Jeffrey Gantz
Globe Correspondent / May 21, 2011

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To look at Complexions Contemporary Ballet, you would think that contemporary ballet must have reaped the whirlwind. Founded in 1994 by former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater members Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, this company has spent its 17 years ripping through packed houses from New York to Korea, delighting audiences and on occasion befuddling critics in search of thought as well as eye-popping movement.

Last night, in its first visit here since 2007, Complexions touched down at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston and World Music/CRASHarts in a program of five works, two of them Boston premieres.

One measure of Rhoden and Richardson’s success has been their ability to attract dancers from high-profile troupes like American Ballet Theatre, the Joffrey Ballet, Ballett Frankfurt, and Dance Theatre of Harlem. The music they use ranges from Bach to the Beatles; most of it is contemporary, everything from Arvo Pärt and Astor Piazzolla to Nina Simone and Marvin Gaye. Most choreography is by Rhoden, though William Forsythe’s “Approximate Sonata’’ is in the repertory.

The program at the Majestic, all pieces by Rhoden, began with the first movement of “Mercy,’’ subtitled “CathedralConfessionsCredoPenance.’’ Yet if the opening incantation of Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’’ seems to promise sin, salvation, and the usual Ailey uplift, what follows is anything but. Gary W. Jeter II is the red-leotarded soul in a piece whose soundscape — from Bach to Steve Reich to the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi — ranges over the international religious map, and whose vocally intense conclusion, with Jeter raised and spread-eagled, is more of a passion than a penance.

Set to Roy Buchanan’s “When a Guitar Plays the Blues,’’ “Moody Booty Blues’’ seems to be holding the blues at bay with its incessant agitation, but the big questions get asked all the same, even in the face of fouettés that would not disgrace the Opera House stage. Richardson turns up in a solo excerpt from “Moonlight’’; “What color is my soul today?’’ asks Rhoden in his music, and Richardson answers with a red chair, a big red bouquet of flowers, and, more to the point, speed, extension, and articulation.

But an excerpt from “On Holiday’’ for four couples winds up illustrating the jazz score: “Come Rain or Come Shine,’’ “Good Morning Heartache,’’ “Lover Man,’’ and “My Man,’’ each woman staying with her man come whatever. And though the rousing closer, “Rise,’’ starts by bathing its dancers in an arena spotlight of apocalyptic grace (on the eve of May 21 yet), if what you’re looking for is the ultimate ballet set to U2 songs, this probably isn’t it. Still, “Mercy’’ all by itself offers the critics a full evening of thought. And Complexions’ spectacular movement will satisfy everyone else.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.

COMPLEXIONS CONTEMPORARY BALLET Presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston and World Music/CRASHarts

At: Cutler Majestic Theatre, last night through tomorrow. 617-482-6661, www.celebrityseries.org or 617-876-4275, www.worldmusic.org