More than two years after his death, David Bowie continues to influence popular culture in numerous, unexpected ways. With the exception of Prince, no other figure — musical, cultural or political — in recent memory has stirred up such a lingering and profound impact on fans after his passing. If anything, it’s a grief that strangely keeps growing and expanding exponentially long after the point that such a pervasive sadness would have faded away and gone through its own natural kind of death.
Choreographer Dwight Rhoden reportedly started working on StarDust, his dance tribute to Bowie, before the singer’s demise from liver cancer in New York City in January 2016 at the age of 69, but the ballet inevitably takes on greater resonance now in the sweeping and endless void of the Thin White Duke’s absence. In the 2016 piece’s best moments, it feels as if Rhoden has shaped together bits of intergalactic dust, music, motion and raw light to create a bright new star, which he’s stitched tightly into the stellar firmament of collective homages as a stubborn, glittery reminder that Bowie is still here among us, and perhaps always will be.
With his New York–based troupe Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Rhoden presented StarDust in L.A. for the first time, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Friday night, April 20, following the local debut of a new work, Bach 25, a strikingly effective mashup of balletic elegance with short musical excerpts by Johann Sebastian Bach and his relatives. The program, hosted by the Glorya Kaufman Dance Foundation, was also scheduled to include Gutter Glitter, another piece by Rhoden, but that work wasn’t performed Friday.
Intended, perhaps, as a warmup and mood setter to the Bowie ballet, Bach 25 nonetheless featured some of the best dancing of the evening by the coed, multi-ethnic, 15-person company. Following a quick introductory flurry of activity by the ensemble, Complexions patriarch and co-founder Desmond Richardson took over the large Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage for an extended solo, as a canned Bach piano piece poured out of the PA. A former principal dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the 40-something Richardson appeared taut and lean as he commanded the stage with bold, decisive movements. He didn’t dazzle with gravity-defying leaps or other flashy tricks but exuded calm and poise with his expressive gestures and brooding intensity.
Bathed in lighting designer Michael Korsch’s starkly atmospheric golden light, the movements of Richardson and the rest of the company stood out boldly against the bare, blank canvas of the stage. The female dancers danced in tight, form-fitting tan leotards by costume designer Christine Darch, while the men wore similarly colored boxer-brief–style shorts. Under the hazy lighting, the minimal outfits created the illusion that the dancers were naked and emphasized the motions of their limbs. The men’s bare, skeletal ribcages heaved as the dancers caught their breaths amid the whirlwind of activity.
The Complexions dancers were mostly earthbound for the first half of the evening, with only a few jumps mixed with a series of lifts that were generally moored close to the ground. Much of Rhoden’s choreography for Bach 25 used the dancers’ arms to communicate a feeling of passion, and there were several passages in which the chorus dancers locked arms and spiraled together enchantingly. The stately curlicues of Bach’s melodies were well-matched by Complexions’ formal, almost classical-style eloquence.
The rest of the company returned without Richardson after intermission to perform Rhoden’s choreography for the nine David Bowie songs that constitute StarDust. For the piece’s grand beginning, Rhoden wisely started at the end of Bowie’s life with “Lazarus,” one of the key tracks from Bowie’s final album, Blackstar. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” Bowie’s resigned voice intoned prophetically in the opening verse like an unseen god. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now.”
Indeed, everybody knows Bowie by now and has their own personal and distinct connection to his music. It’s a tricky thing to re-create or adapt the songs of such an iconic musician who’s so firmly rooted in our collective and individual memories, but for much of StarDust Rhoden succeeded in invoking Bowie’s music while embellishing those classic sounds and visions with the newfound illusions of light and movement.
Darch’s costumes for StarDust were similar to the leotards and briefs worn in Bach 25, except that they came in multiple colors and a couple male dancers were outfitted in longer pants. Three of the principal dancers were adorned in polite dollops of glittery face paint — a nod to Bowie’s glam image with his ’70s band The Spiders From Mars — but the costuming didn’t otherwise draw upon Bowie’s rich visual allure, which was a bit of a missed opportunity. The sparse costumes that worked so simply and efficiently in Bach 25 were merely plain and generic in StarDust, especially because the latter piece also was presented with little visual staging apart from a glittery curtain backdrop and Korsch’s artful lighting.
Another distressing element of StarDust was that some of the dancers lip-synched to Bowie’s music, which essentially replaced the songs’ inherent mysteries with the tackily mundane vibe of karaoke performers. Even with Rhoden’s generally impressive choreography, “Changes” veered at times into Vegas-y schmaltz. The awkward lip-synching was still a corny distraction on “Life on Mars?” but the sweeping grace of the choreography aligned better to communicate the song’s wistful emotion.
The mood deepened, however, on “Space Oddity” as the chorus dancers twirled their arms like propellers as Bowie’s lonely astronaut launches into space, metaphorical and otherwise. Of all the dancing lip-synchers, Addison Ector was the one performer who actually communicated a sense of palpable danger and sensual menace with genuine charisma while miming Bowie’s lyrics. Ector was even more imposing as he fiercely mouthed the words while stalking fearlessly across the stage en pointe.
Moments later, a coven of female dancers floated around the stage simultaneously en pointe. Standing so tall, perched on the very tips of their toes, the women loomed and hovered delicately, larger than life. With their glassy-eyed Stepford Wives expressions and otherworldly manner, they moved around dreamily with the oddly alien grace of a herd of deer on psychedelic mushrooms invading a suburban garden, both familiar and exotic at the same time.
With its disco-funk backing, Bowie’s “1984” sounded like the theme song to a 1970s detective TV show. The dancers appeared swept up in the song’s party-time nostalgia, but Rhoden’s perky choreography cheerfully ignored the song’s darker, Orwellian underpinning (“Beware the savage jaw of 1984”). A properly serious mood returned during “Heroes.” Interestingly, Rhoden chose to use Peter Gabriel’s slow, solemnly elegiac remake of the song instead of Bowie’s more industrialized, desperately passionate original version with Brian Eno, but the balladic arrangement helped to restore a sense of the emotional grandeur that began with “Lazarus.”
Breaking down Bowie’s extensive oeuvre into just nine songs is difficult, but it’s nonetheless a shame that the producers chose to use such relatively lightweight and innocuous tunes as “Modern Love” and “Let’s Dance” instead of the dozens of far more compelling and unique songs Bowie penned throughout his long career. Those two tracks might have nostalgic appeal to people who grew up on Bowie’s mainstream-pop hits in the ’80s but they are lyrically and musically vapid, and hardly reminiscent of his more daring work. Not surprisingly, the choreography on these songs correspondingly felt blander and more like a Broadway revue, despite the dancers’ energetic precision.
Theatrically hammy lip-synching initially ruined “Rock & Roll Suicide” but Rhoden’s interpretation eventually overcame the early artifice once the song kicked in to Bowie’s uplifting exhortation: “Give me your hands!” Whether it was the power of the song itself or the deft way the chorus dancers lifted the second half of the song on their shoulders, the dancing on “Rock & Roll Suicide” eventually echoed the stirring intensity of Bowie’s rallying cry for disaffected freaks everywhere.
“Young Americans” brought the show to a close (although “Let’s Dance” was used when the dancers took their bows at the end). A song that seemed like such a relic of the distant ’70s felt newly relevant in the Trump era as Bowie’s disembodied voice warned, “Do you remember your President Nixon?” Rhoden chose to make the song feel more celebratory than ominous, perhaps to leave the audience in a good mood at the end.
And while it’s quite likely that Bowie — a longtime fan of the performing arts and himself a mime in his early days — would have appreciated the attempt to translate his past musical creations into a wholly new form as a modern-dance interpretation, one can’t help wishing that Rhoden and company had employed some of Bowie’s own artistic daring and plunged more fully into the heavier and more emotionally complicated music, as they did on “Lazarus” and “Space Oddity,” instead of settling for a feel-good happy ending.