Dwight Rhoden’s galvanizing protest rally of a ballet, WOKE, premiered at The Joyce Theater with his company Complexions Contemporary Ballet. The mere possibility that ballet dancers could carry the laborious weight of topical issues while wearing pointe shoes, without devolving into obscure, apolitical abstraction, might be met with an arched-eyebrow. Dwight Rhoden takes on just this task by answering the call of rap, hip-hop, electronic pop, and R&B back with neoclassical phrases of piano music that his dancers match in vivacity and poise. WOKE is a work that will admit many responses and interpretations, but one of its undaunted objectives is to realize a vocabulary of movement that bridges popular music with arguably the most conservative form of dance.
It’s first worth noting Rhoden’s decision to title his choreography after a word tossed around enough for some to say it’s been hijacked by superficial, white cosmopolitanism in a lazy effort to appear politically conscious. Now I hear “woke” used more ironically than not and one critic flatly stated the word is dead. Rhoden is likely aware of this. And WOKE may be an attempt to reinvigorate the word with the uplifting hope and transcendency it once carried. It would be easy for a critic to level at the politics of WOKE, but how could anyone ignore the dancers’ craftsmanship?
Much of the performance was oddly elegant — perhaps only odd because the elegance of the company’s dancers is set to biting political criticism from swift rap lyrics, tapping on issues like police brutality, gun violence, and the harrowing accounts of detained immigrants, all reminding the audience of what currently feels like pure political chaos. Amidst this sense of dismay, dancer Larissa Gerszke calmly battements her leg, lifting everyone’s eyes with it. Watching her seize large swatches of stage-space with her legwork during her pas de deux with Maxfield Haynes is mesmerizing, and they both achieve a high degree of sympathy by sweeping their shared intimacy across the stage, past the audience. Her face is one you will want to put a name to by the end of the show.
Gerszke and Tatiana Melendez notably accomplish a blend of ballet and hip-hop that illuminates what makes Rhoden’s choreography distinct. They utilize the staccato rhythm natural in some ballet steps to hit the sharp, bold isolations in the music they dance to, and they perform these movements with infectious braggadocio. Other ballet companies have succeeded doing this, one such example being New York City Ballet’s The Runaway. Rhoden and his company succeed in other areas by enlivening music’s immediate thematics and placing political critique clearly in the foreground. However, there are some members of Complexions’ troupe who appear too classically trained to integrate hip-hop into their movement. Some shortcomings are to be expected since Rhoden’s vision for his company and his other work gesture toward great names in dance such as Twyla Tharp and Jerome Robbins, setting the bar high for Complexions.
Such high aspirations, like those of dancers attempting to perfect their technique or protestors with utopian dreams, pervade WOKE. But by no means is the piece saccharine; rather Rhoden gives us a work that is aware of its own conceptual obstacles. There is a moment when the company moves in monotonous synchronization to Moses Sumney’s “Rank & File.” The pressure to assimilate in a homogenizing collective is completely contrasted against the passionate, liberating duets and solos just performed. Yet moments when the ensemble is in sync are some of the most energizing. Rhoden’s choreography works to remind the audience how easy it is to fall in love with a collective social structure and why these collectives are so dangerously easy to fall in love with.
WOKE doesn’t try to clamp down on a single definition of the eponymous term but demonstrates the reward of confronting faults and exploring ambivalence. Flashes of beauty are found in scenes of tension, quarrels between partners, and attempts at achieving impossible perfection. Spectatorship ultimately becomes an engaging, continuous process that develops as the dance goes on, which is the precise definition of “eye-opening.”
Complexions Contemporary Ballet will be performing WOKE at The Joyce Theater (175 Eighth Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 3.