Not being a particular student of dance, an effort was made quickly to bring me up to speed about Complexions Contemporary Ballet when I arrived at the Joyce Theater Friday afternoon. The company was warming up for that evening’s performance; their New York season runs at the Joyce through Nov. 30th.
I was offered descriptions such as “ballet on steroids”; “it will make your eyes pop out of your head”; and, “they put eight ballets into one ballet.”
All of this made me want to see their show. However, my interest was more than academic. Complexions had also invited me to dance with the company. Or rather rehearse. Or at least warm up.
But that was intimidating enough. My formal dance training ended around eighth grade when I graduated from John Barclay’s dancing classes. By that time I’d displayed, I’d like to think, some facility with the waltz, competence in the cha-cha and fox trot, and the decided need for more effort in the Lindy.
I should probably also mention that I’d invented a dance move, where I simultaneously hopped and shuffled backward on one foot. It used to wow my friends in college, but it has proven a source of recurring mortification to my wife and children in more recent years.
But I have no experience in performing ballet—contemporary, classical, or otherwise.
Add to that a raging case of tendinitis in my heel. Which tempted me, as I arrived and limped from the cab to the curb, to call the whole thing off.
Forget about attempting a tour jete. I had a nightmare vision of my leg splintering into a thousand pieces as some lithe dancer catapulted herself into my arms. And then months of rehab.
However, members of Complexions—co-founded by dancer Desmond Richardson and choreographer Dwight Rhoden and celebrating its 20th anniversary this season—were rather adamant that I join them onstage. Without ever requiring me to sign any sort of release from liability form.
I did so while offering disclaimers, cracking jokes and apologizing profusely for interrupting them.
Christine Johnson, an original Complexions member and a former principal dancer with Dance Theater of Harlem led the warm-up, instructing me to place my right hand on the barre and follow her instructions along with everybody else.
At that point Ms. Johnson showed us approximately 20 dance steps, which we were apparently expected instantly to memorize and mimic. Obviously, this would have been no sweat if I’d been dancing since age 3—as the exquisitely muscled bodies of the male and female dancers around me suggested they had—but I’d chosen a different, more sedentary career path.
After my first or second series of lame attempts, the instructor, who seemed at first rather stern, commanded the company to observe me. The point, apparently, was that they shouldn’t take their talent and training for granted.
On a more festive note, I didn’t suffer permanent injury. As a matter of fact, because of all the pointing, flexing and stretching, my foot felt better than it had in weeks. It even made me contemplate signing up for dance classes, or Pilates, or something.
Little did I realize that dancers live with tendinitis. When I joined Mr. Richardson, who was watching the rehearsals from the audience, he sounded as if he had more experience and knowledge with the condition than either my podiatrist or physical therapist.
“I know what I need to do for my body,” he explained.
That discussion led to another about dancing at a relatively advanced age. Mr. Richardson, who was a principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the first African-American male principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, is 46 years old. He would be doing a special guest appearance with Complexions that evening.
“I’m not trying to prove anything to anybody,” he explained. “I’m trying to share.”
He added that while mature dancers might have lost a little in their leaps, their greater experience shows during transitions. “Between movements,” Mr. Richardson explained. “You have to speak through these movements. That’s the air. You have to be able to color that. With emotion, with know-how, with precision.”
He went on: “Young dancers tend to do just the technique and not explore with their heart, humanity and soul. You have to bring your passion. It translates to the audience. They don’t understand the technical movements. But they appreciate the humanity and the individuality.”
My lesson wasn’t quite over, even though I suspect Mr. Richardson had scant hope of helping me express my humanity through my body. He gave me a brief tutorial on how to extend my arm more elegantly, if not quite color the air.
“We study the anatomy,” he explained, as I stretched and felt muscles I didn’t even know I had pop to attention. “That’s why a lot of dancers go into physical therapy.”