Complexions Makes History With First Poetjournalist-in-Residence, Aaron Dworkin

November 14, 2023

Dance and poetry have long enjoyed a fruitful partnership. Across genres, hundreds of choreographed works have integrated elements of spoken word. Now, Complexions Contemporary Ballet has benefited from the two art forms’ compatibility with a new artistic position. On November 14, renowned writer and poet Aaron Dworkin will debut as Complexions’ poetjournalist-in-residence in the company’s season opener at New York City’s Joyce Theater; the program features Dwight Rhoden’s world premiere For Crying Out Loud, Justin Peck’s The Dreamers, Ricardo Amarante’s Love Fear Loss, and Jenn Freeman’s Regardless.

Aaron Dworkin, shown hips-up, leans against a colorfully painted wall outside. He wears dark sunglasses, a black t-shirt, a white jacket, black jeans, and a silver pendant.
Aaron Dworkin. Photo by Shawn Lee, courtesy Dworkin.

As poetjournalist-in-residence, Dworkin will work with Complexions founders and co–artistic directors Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson to develop poetry that will be used in company repertoire or recited as an additional performance element. Dworkin’s first project with the company is his “Complexions,” which he will recite to kick off the Joyce opener. The poem, he explains, encapsulates the company’s Season 29 theme: “Dream On.” As Dworkin recites, company artist Christian Burse will dance onstage to Rhoden’s original choreography.

“It wasn’t just about being, you know, the first ballet company that did this [residency],” says Rhoden on why Complexions created the position. “I think what’s important with companies nowadays is that they really are distinctive in their own right. This partnership enhances our mission.”

Dworkin and Rhoden first met in 2022, when the former invited Rhoden to be on his online show Arts Engines, which features hosted conversations with leaders in the arts. Dworkin recalls “falling in love” with Rhoden’s approach to artistry; when he began reaching out to various companies for collaborations a few months later, Complexions was at the top of his list. After some discussion, the partnership was officially announced last August.

Dworkin describes his work as “poetjournalism” because of its focus on telling real stories. “You won’t find ‘poetjournalism’ in the dictionary yet,” he says with a laugh. “I’m using the medium to creatively illustrate not just news stories or events, but encompassing perspectives.”

Rhoden found Dworkin’s invitation to collaborate particularly exciting as a fellow poet and spoken-word enthusiast. “A lot of the work I do has spoken word in it,” he says. “That’s how most of my creative projects start—by me writing poems.” Rhoden’s choreography has also often featured rap, including his 2019 Woke, which features music by Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and others.

Alberto Andrade wears a long, black tulle skirt that billows behind him as he flies through the air in a contemporary sauté position, his back (right) leg in attitude derriere.
Alberto Andrade. Photo by Rachel Neville, courtesy Complexions.

Dworkin feels especially connected to Complexions because of the company’s emphasis on diversity and creating works rooted in contemporary culture. “My entire life’s work has, in some way, tied to how our combined, connected communities empower.” Rhoden agrees: “As artists, it’s our responsibility to contribute a point of view in this world,” he says. “Poetry enhances the messages that I have throughout the different works I make.”

While Dworkin is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he has visited Complexions’ studios in New York City, pored over rehearsal and performance videos, and even gotten to know the dancers personally. And while his formal dance training ended at age 8 (“My teacher said I had a great fifth position!” he recalls), Dworkin has maintained a deep passion for dance.

“I view myself as another asset, another artistic tool for them to utilize,” he says, explaining that he finds many similarities between the two art forms. “When I think about the arc that a dancer can create onstage, physically and visually in movement, I see that arc in a line of poetry.”

Going forward, Rhoden plans to create a large-scale world premiere that fully integrates Dworkin’s original poetry. With the company’s 30th-anniversary season coming up next year, “We have some big ideas,” he says. Already, he has been impressed with Dworkin’s ability to capture the company’s essence in “Complexions”: “He’s a very intuitive, sensitive artist, but I guess when someone gets it that well and the partnership is brand-new, you think: Okay, we’re really on a journey here!”