When Complexions Contemporary Ballet performs at Stanford University's Frost Amphitheater, audiences will witness dancers paying tribute to a pair of musical giants — albeit from very different eras — classical master Johann Sebastian Bach and rock star David Bowie. Their work will be celebrated in a program showcasing the renowned dance company's exhilarating mix of styles and moods.
"STAR DUST: From Bach to Bowie," which will come to Frost on Wednesday, Aug. 3, brings together the sounds of two of Complexions founding artistic director and choreographer Dwight Rhoden's personal all-time favorites. Over the course of its two acts, the show "kind of goes from a contemporary ballet feeling to a whole other, very theatrical rock 'n' roll, fun feeling," Rhoden said.
The first half of the program ("Bach 25") was originally created to mark Complexions' 25th anniversary. Rhoden said he's choreographed to Bach frequently over the years.
"I think Bach in one way is very mathematical in how he composed music — it could even be argued to be scientific — yet I find an incredible amount of emotion in his music," he said. "The music is so rhythmical, with so many colors and textures. It lends itself to movement, in my opinion, immediately."
Rhoden described the Bach portion of the show as a very physical, dynamic and abstract work for around 16 dancers, intended to capture and follow the energy of the music without following a particular narrative or storyline.
The second act, "STAR DUST," is a love letter and thank you to David Bowie, one of Rhoden's longtime inspirations.
"I grew up listening to Bowie. I even think I wanted to be David Bowie as a teenager," he said with a laugh. "I think what's really attractive about David Bowie is not only is he so theatrical and chameleon-like in his persona himself, but he was always stretching out in new directions," he said of the artist, whose eclectic career spanned four decades.
"His uniqueness is really strong and clear throughout all those years. He was very courageous in how he created music. That lent itself to a lot of visual inspiration in my head. Then there was the feeling and the lyrics and the stories he was telling in the songs themselves."
Unlike the abstract artistry and neo-classical choreography of "Bach 25," in "STAR DUST," dancers represent multiple Bowie characters, wearing costumes and makeup inspired by some of his most iconic looks, lip syncing, and telling the stories of his lyrics through movement.
"I always feel that his music conjures a bit of a picture or a scenario when you listen to it; there's more dimensions," Rhoden said. "I just found that extremely inspirational."
Audiences can expect to see dancers interpreting classics such as "Space Oddity," "Heroes" and many others. The piece begins with the haunting "Lazarus," from Bowie's final record, "Blackstar," released just before the artist's death in 2016, and includes songs from throughout his long career. Some other favorites of Rhoden's include "Life on Mars," "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" and, fittingly for a celebrated choreographer, "Let's Dance."
Rhoden said "STAR DUST," which debuted in 2016, has been one of the most widely requested of his shows. That, he said, is a testament to Bowie's enduring legacy. "He's inspired entire generations of musicians and artists, going on beyond his life here," he said. "It's one of those things that has a real resonance."
The New York-based Complexions has "always been about diversity and inclusion," with a message of unity, Rhoden said. As the Complexions website states, "The company's foremost innovation is that dance should be about removing boundaries, not reinforcing them."
The company was founded by Rhoden and Desmond Richardson in 1994, after the two collaborated on a show that brought together many of their friends from a wide range of dance companies, backgrounds and experiences. That diversity — "not only racially, ethnically and physically" but also in terms of dance genres, including classical ballet, modern dance, hip-hop and more, he said — proved to create an electrifying result on stage, and the success of the show led to the creation of what is now the long-running dance company.
"Nowadays it's more common to mix genres. In many ways I think we were a bit ahead of our time," Rhoden noted. "When you see a Complexions performance you will certainly see that diversity. In every area that we can, we push the beauty of celebrating our differences, celebrating the fact that we come from different worlds, have different points of view, and show the beauty of harmony in very different elements mixed together."
While Complexions shows have toured worldwide, the Stanford date will mark the company's debut Bay Area appearance. The performance is co-produced by Stanford Live and San Francisco Ballet, which will present its own "Starry Nights" program on Aug. 5 and 6. Rhoden has an ongoing and fond relationship with San Francisco Ballet, having done a number of works with the company in the past including, most recently, premiering "The Promised Land" with the company in April of this year.
He hopes the local dance fans who've enjoyed his work with San Francisco Ballet will be interested in checking out Complexions as well.
"I'm really excited to bring my company and show the audience what we're all about," he said.
Complexions Contemporary Ballet performs "STAR DUST: From Bach to Bowie," Wednesday, Aug. 3, at 8 p.m. at Frost Amphitheater, 351 Lasuen St., Stanford. Tickets start at $40. More information is available at live.stanford.edu.