Complexions Contemporary Ballet premiered their first installment of their dance film series Black is Beautiful on February 3rd. Choreographed and directed by Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, the film featured dancers Jared Brunson, Larissa Gerszke, Brandon Gray, Maxfield Haynes, Khayr Muhammad, Timothy Stickney, and April Watson. The film took the creative approach of featuring spoken word poetry by Terrell Lewis, Aicha Therese, Mr. Reed, and Poetess Jess.

The film opens with a few words from principal dancer, educator, and founding member of Complexions Contemporary Ballet Christina Johson. Afterwards, Desmond Richardson—a co-founder of Complexions and co-choreographer of the performance—opens the film with a statement about the significance of artists and dancers. 

“As artists, we are the gatekeepers of our culture. We document stories of times and craft visions of what’s possible to entertain, educate, and inspire our audiences,” says Richardson. 

Richardson goes on to describe the difficulties that the dance company is currently facing. The Covid-19 pandemic has stopped their live performances and tours, causing losses of up to $1 million to date. The dance company is currently trying to raise $150k in order to offset their losses. 

Representation, Black Lives Matter, and Spoken Word in “Black is Beautiful”

The film shows Co-founder and Co-choreographer of the performance Dwight Rhoden explaining the inspiration for the film: 

“I looked to the dancers to kind of inform wherever we’re going as we start to create something new. But what I really was moved by was the advocacy and the energy of the young people today really wanting to have their voices heard, taking their seat at the table, and participating in everything that has to do with racial equity,” said Rhoden. 

Rhoden also explains that the spoken word poetry and music in the background of the film were created before the actual film, claiming he was “blown away” and had to incorporate them into the film. 

The spoken-word piece was created by Terrell Lewis, co-founder of Da Poetry Jam, a UK-based spoken-word platform. Lewis tells the audience that he was inspired to create the “Black is Beautiful” spoken-word project after being asked to share his thoughts on the death of George Floyd and others killed by police brutality. He said he “didn’t want to add fuel to the fire,” but rather he wanted to “combat the hate with love.” 

“I wanted to work collaboratively and use my voice in a positive way to remind our people of how strong, how amazing, how powerful we are,” said Lewis. The combination of Black American dancers and Black spoken-word poets from the UK underscore the fact that racial inequality is a global issue rather than a country-specific one. 

The film’s introduction also features Misty Copeland, the first Black principal ballerina with American Ballet Theater. Copeland said that the film’s title is not only a title but also a “call to action that is rooted in a decade’s old movement for equality and justice for Black people in this country and around the world.” Copeland also lauds Richardson—a co-founder of Complexions—as a pioneer as he was the first African-American principal dancer with American Ballet Theater in 1997. 

“Desmond has shown generations of Black and brown dancers what representation looks like. His path is what made it that much more possible for me to become the first Black principal ballerina with ABT.”

The performance begins with a dancer on train tracks, and then, next to tracks as a train passes. The film is set in black and white, making the contrasts between the shadow and light quite stark. The train and its tracks also seem to allude to the Black struggle for freedom as trains were important modes of escape during the American period of slavery. 

The audience is then shown images of protests against police brutality as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” plays in the background. The scenes of protests are combined with flashes of one of the dancer’s mouthing the words of the song. A patriotic song for the United States is contrasted with images of people protesting the country’s injustices against its own people. The dancer’s expression is one of both anger and pain, mirroring the anguish that many of us currently feel. 

The film is shot in various places around New York, including certain places in Brooklyn — a center for Black culture and art. One of the locations features a Black Lives Matter mural depicting the names of police brutality victims. Scenes star individual dancers as well as groups. The scenes with multiple dancers use complimenting or synchronized sequences. Their movements illustrate strength and delicate beauty. The choreography often features strong poses accented by fluid and graceful movements.

Ultimately, the film is a beautiful and artistic commentary of the experiences and emotions of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement and Black History as a whole. It’s an impactful work that adds to the growing conversation of what equality in this nation means as well as a meaningful contribution to Black History Month.