Everything about “Mercy” – the opening number of Complexions Contemporary Ballet’s performance at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston – was big: the skirts, the extensions, the lifts, the lighting and the anguish.
It’s easy to see the connection between a powerful, and sometimes disturbing, piece like “Mercy” and the work of Alvin Ailey. After all, Complexions’ artistic directors – Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson -- were former Ailey dancers. They founded the company in 1994 and have taken their Ailey roots to a supped up, angular level. Where Ailey movements are liquid and fluid, the movements of a Complexion dancer are sharp – all elbows and dagger-like legs. The company members – who come in all shapes, sizes and yes, complexions – are some of the most physically fit athletes to leap across an American stage.
The kickoff number also seems an extension of Ailey, particularly the “Sinnerman” piece within the seminal “Revelations,” which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. The dancers in “Mercy,” accompanied by a range of aggressively religious musical interludes, writhe across the stage, clearly imploring relief from some oppression.
While the movement and execution is beautiful, the dance is far from such. But beauty was clearly not choreographer Rhoden’s goal. With the heavy religious overtones, he’s driving at some deeper point about the human condition. The performers’ struggle reaches a crescendo at the end, with members of the company shoving their faces into buckets -- a gut-wrenching mime of vomiting. While visually striking, “Mercy” is far from a feel-good piece. Witnessing its performance is more like donning a hair shirt that leaves the audience member nearly as anxious for relief as the dancers.
Thankfully, things got easier for the Boston crowd. The nearly two-and-a-half hour performance became increasingly cheerful, moving next to the sensual, “Moody Booty Blues,” where five dancers (two women and three men) flirt across the stage, exemplifying youthful exuberance and energy. Next up was “Moonlight,” a solo by the Richardson, who is accompanied only by a simple red chair and bouquet of red houses, and “On Holiday,” where three couples act out the ups and downs of love and infatuation.
Rhoden and Richardson save the best for last in “Rise,” which is set to favorites from U2 including, “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” While the opening number, “Mercy,” was all angst and anxiety, “Rise” was all energy and exaltation. The dancers – who had run several marathons by this point in the show – looked no worse for wear as the soared to the vocals of Bono and the guitar riffs of The Edge. And the audience was buoyed as well, brought to their feet, hands clapping and eyes shining. While the show began with a bit of medicine, it ended with a bit of candy that left anyone who witnessed ready to bop out of the theater and onto Tremont Street.