In "STAR DUST: A Ballet Tribute to David Bowie," Complexions Contemporary Ballet co-founders Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardsonbacked by their Alvin Ailey lineageand their dance troupe tackle many of the late legendary singer's hits, including "Space Oddity" and "Young Americans."
In a recent conversation with Windy City Times, Rhodenwho has composed more than 80 ballets for Complexionstalked about his love of Bowie, the stigma surrounding male dancers and his own queerness, among other topics.
NOTE: This conversation was edited for clarity and length.
Windy City Times: How did you become involved in the world of dance? When did you know you wanted to be in that world?
Dwight Rhoden: It was kind of a fluke.
I didn't dance until I was 18, so I was very late in the game. I was just a social dancer but I got into dance contests back in the day. So I was brought over into a dance school/company in my hometown of Dayton, Ohioand I immediately fell in love with what I saw. I had no exposure to ballet or modern dance because it wasn't part of my time growing up. But when I saw what it wasan organized, disciplined art formI just fell in love with it and never looked back.
WCT: It was like you recognized the meaning of your life.
DR: Yeahabsolutely. I had done other things, like playing instruments and being in theater/drama club, but I never really connected with those things. Those things just seemed to be extracurricular activities. But the moment I saw people moving, I said, "Wowthis is for me." I just couldn't stop doing it and I was challenged by it.
WCT: Talk a little bit about "STAR DUST" and your interest in David Bowie.
DR: Well, I've been a big David Bowie fan since I was a teenager. And, in many ways, I almost wanted to be David Bowie because I was really turned on by his multiple personas and how he always had a different focus or look when he released a new album. And then there was the fact that he did four decades of genre-defying music[he did] rock, R&B, punk and jazz. That individuality and originality of his was just really attractive to me.
Also, he created these worlds that weren't necessarily on Earth and there was a lot of fantasy to itand I love his voice. In many ways, "STAR DUST" is a love letter to David Bowie; it's a tribute to his music and he was truly an original.
WCT: Did you ever see that traveling exhibit about Bowie?
DR: I only saw it online.
WCT: I saw it at the MCAand it was just astounding. But just one that stood out was the fact that he was so thin that they had to let out a jumpsuit for Kate Moss to wear.
DR: Oh, no! [Laughs] He was so unique-looking and there was a beauty to him. He was oddand I say that with the most admiration I can. That's part of what made him so appealing.
WCT: You were part of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at one time. I don't mean to [presuppose your age], but did you meet Mr. Aileyand, if so, what was he like?
DR: Actually, Alvin hired me in 1987; unfortunately, he passed away a couple years later. I had actually worked with him before I got to the company.
To me, he was also one of a kind. He was really concerned with humanity and the human condition, and he was somebody who really knew how to tell a story in his works. So my impression of Alvin is that there was a lot of heart and soul in his work and in him, as a man. He was a lovely person and someone who was fun. He was very passionate about his work but he was also a jokester sometimes. With his work, it was not even about the steps but the meaning; he always brought a really great level of depth to his work.
WCT: What did you think about the documentary about him?
DR: I thought it was great! It was a perspective, and I think they captured the person he was and what his work means to America. He was an iconic figure in dance and his company is the premier dance company in America.
WCT: I interviewed Bill T. Jones about 15 years ago. At one point, I asked him about racism regarding job opportunities in dance and he responded, "You may be correct, but a young Black male [who is] halfway well-trained and disciplined can write [his] own ticket." Do you agree with that statement?
DR: I think there's some truth to that, but I don't think that's true all the time. With the way the world is and since the pandemicwith social justice, Black Lives Matter, and the need for people to show up and be responsible [regarding] diversity and inclusionmen and women of color have more opportunities than they had in the past. For myself, when I came up in the '80s and '90s (during my heyday), it wasn't always easy to get a job sometimes, but you had to be excellent or show them that there was no other choice but to hire me, because I did something that was unique.
And that's really what Complexions has always done. The foundation of our mission is about celebrating our differences. Complexions has a universality to it and it sends a message every time it performsand it's about unity and celebrating different qualities. That's how we have always rolled, if you will. If you look at Desmond Richardson, he was the first African-American principal at the American Ballet Theatre [in the late '90s] so he was ahead of his time. Complexions brought together artists of various backgrounds because we felt that it was beautiful, interesting and [educational].
WCT: Do you feel that there's still a stigma about male dancers and masculinity?
DR: There's somebut a whole lot less than there used to be.
Complexions has male, female and nonbinary dancers. So, hopefully, that stigma is fading away. But, of course, I live in a big city [NYC]; in Middle America, it might still be more prevalent. Overall, though, I think it's less and less.
WCT: For you, what's it like to be part of the LGBTQ+ community in today's America?
DR: So this is going to sound crazy, but I think it's empowering, in a way. I think that LGBTQ+ space holds a lot of power these days and that there's more of an acceptance [regarding] who we are and what we offer communities. Not to get into stereotypes, but by nature of us being different from the status quo, we bring an alternative perspective to our worldour lives, the self-expression and freedomthat's very, very powerful.
I tend to be an [optimistic] guy and I don't find it disparaging or oppressive. I choose to look at the fact that I'm free to be who I am as an asset.
WCT: I've gotten a spectrum of answers to that question; some people have been angry while others have been optimistic.
DR: As a gay Black man, it definitely has not been an easy roadbut it's the road that I'm on. So I choose to find a way to bring what I have and, because I have a platform, I find that to be powerful.
WCT: This last question is simple, but it may have a complex answer: How do you define dance?
DR: That is a hard question.
I define dance as one of the most natural things. It happens when you hear music or anything that gets your body moving, like tapping your fingers. It's probably one of the most expressive art forms and it involves a totality of using everything. Dancers are some of the smartest, most intuitive people who I know because you're using everythingyour brain, your heart and your entire physical body. It feels like a total expression, to me.
"STAR DUST: A Ballet Tribute to David Bowie" takes place Saturday, Feb. 3, at The Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Dr. Visit auditoriumtheatre.org/events/ .