Lowdown
What: Complexions Contemporary Ballet – Bach to Bowie
Where & when: The Civic, May 9 – 12

German composer Johann Sebastian Bach and British music icon David Bowie may seem like polar opposites separated by centuries but when New York's Complexions Contemporary Ballet planned its 25th anniversary, it looked for the similarities between the two rather than the differences.

The result is the dance show Bach to Bowie which has been hailed by critics as "a timeless piece of contemporary art" and "inventive, emotionally satisfying and just plain joyful". That's music to the ears of Complexions' co founder Desmond Richardson but the renowned US dancer and choreographer says having fun was one of the most important things about celebrating the company's silver anniversary.

"We talked a bit about what to do to mark 25 years," he says, speaking from New York City, "but I didn't want a big story; I just wanted to honour the music that moved me and that was Bach – our first performances when we started the company were with his music – and Bowie so we thought, 'why not?'"

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Richardson talks about the fact that Bach and Bowie, in their own ways, changed music forever pioneering new styles and ways of presenting their work. He says they can both be regarded as cultural chameleons.

"Especially, of course, David Bowie who was a musician who used his 'otherness' to his advantage by going into other characters and other worlds to create incredibly iconic music…"

Auckland dance fans can see how well the music and corresponding dances come together this month when Complexions makes its third visit to New Zealand. Sixteen dancers from the company, led by Richardson and fellow choreographer Dwight Rhoden, travel here to perform the two-act Bach to Bowie.

The first dance is to Bach, showcasing the technical perfection and versatility of the company; the second is a homage to Bowie, taking his greatest hits to form a rock-inspired ballet. Richardson jokes that Bowie's lyrics are so evocative that if the dancers could sing, he would have had them do so.

Then again, he might have had to teach them the words. As influential as Bowie was, Richardson acknowledges some of the younger dancers weren't overly familiar with the Thin White Duke.

"They said, 'is that the guy who did Let's Dance?', so I told them that there was so much more to Bowie than that and it was a joy to introduce them to a plethora of his other music. When they heard the songs, they all knew and recognised them and it just so happened that our preparations tied in with the retrospective of his life at Brooklyn Museum… we encouraged the dancers to go and everyone was left knowing full well what a huge creative talent he was."

Richardson says the enthusiasm of local audiences makes the long trip from NY to Auckland worthwhile.

"We always have such a great time here because audiences are so enthusiastic. I think, as a company, we like to make work which is very palpable, very technical and very passionate to create a genuine experience and people love having that rather than something they simply sit back and watch."

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Desmond Richardson, one of the cofounders of New York's Complexions Dance Company.
Desmond Richardson, one of the cofounders of New York's Complexions Dance Company.

But Complexions may share more with New Zealand dance companies than audiences realise. While it was founded in 1994 – hardly the dim and distant past – it was one of the first US ballet companies to be regarded as a truly multicultural one. Indeed, in 1996 Richardson himself was the first African American principal dancer at the then American Ballet Theater.

Richardson says one of the things he likes about coming to New Zealand is seeing how diversity is embraced in our arts. He speaks fondly of local dance company Black Grace performing for Complexions (Black Grace is currently on a 20-date New Zealand tour of its own).

"That diversity speaks to the way of the world, that we are on this Earth together and while we might have our differences, these can be celebrated."