Q&A: Desmond Richardson of Complexions Contemporary Ballet

Photo courtesy of Step on Broadway
Photo courtesy of Step on Broadway

The artistic director of Complexions Contemporary Ballet on this year’s TITAS Command Performance and how contemporary ballet is changing the dance world.

Dallas — If you see only one dance performance this season make sure it’s TITAS Command Performance Gala. Each year TITAS brings the hottest names and companies in the dance industry together for a one-night only dance extravaganza. This year’s impressive lineup includes the mighty Artistic Director and Co-Founder of Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Desmond Richardson.

Known for his power and grace both on and off the stage, Richardson has been called one of the greatest dancers of his generation. His extensive dance career includes The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theater and Ballet Frankfurt under the direction of William Forsythe. He has also appeared with the San Francisco Ballet, Royal Swedish Opera Ballet, Washington Ballet and many others.

In 1998, Richardson joined the premiere cast of the Broadway Musical Fosse for which he received a 1999 Tony Award Nomination. Richardson is also the co-founder and artistic director of the widely-popular Complexions Contemporary Ballet, currently in its 19th season.

TheaterJones asks Desmond Richardson about participating in this year’s Command Performance, his plans for the future and the impact contemporary ballet is making on the dance industry today.

The TITAS Command Performance takes place March 2, 2013 at 7 p.m. at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas.

TheaterJones: You and TITAS have quite a history together. Can you tell me about it?

Desmond Richardson: I was one of the first performers to perform with TITAS back when it started. Charles Santos had invited me some years ago and it has been great to continue that relationship and see how the organization has grown. It’s really fantastic.

So, this is not your first time participating in the Command Performance?

No, I have done this quite a few times.

What do you enjoy most about the Command Performance?

Well, Charles always brings a variety of artists together which gives us the opportunity to see one another because we don’t also get the opportunity to see one another’s performances. So, it’s nice to actually be in the same room with other formidable dancers and dance artists. And because I have been doing this gala from the beginning and I am currently transitioning away from the stage this is also a nice way for me to culminate my ending.

So, you are stepping away from the performing side of the industry?

I’m definitely going to perform, but not in the concert dance capacity. Of course I’ll still be one of the artistic directors of Complexions Contemporary Ballet, but for my performing career I want to research some other things. So, this year is really a culminating year for me.

Can you tell me a little bit about the pieces you will be appearing in at the Command Performance?

I’m dancing two pas de deux with New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan. The first is called Charter choreographed by Complexions co-founder Dwight Rhoden with music by Nicholas Payton; and the other is from a Christopher Wheeldon ballet called After the Rain with music by Arvo Pärt. Both are pretty contemporary in style.

Is there a particular dance style that you feel most comfortable in?

Photo: Nina Alovert
Photo: Nina Alovert

Well, I would say I am pretty comfortable in all genres because I have trained in many different styles. I started out as a hip hop dancer and then I went into classical ballet where I have been a principal dancer with Alvin Ailey, American Ballet Theater and Frankfurt Ballet in Germany. I have also gone to Broadway and was Tony-nominated for my role in Fosse. So, for me it varies. If I can add my experience to whatever I am learning at the time that is always a plus for me. I love growing in that way and I love breathing life into other choreographer’s work.

Was it difficult making the transition to Broadway?

Not really and the reason why is because I had already been trained in so many different styles. The only challenge was learning how to sing and dance, but I tried to stay abreast of it with my acting and vocal classes.

To what do you attribute Complexions Contemporary Ballets success?

Well we are celebrating our 19th season at the moment and will be celebrating our 20th anniversary come January 2014. People say that Dwight Rhoden is the dancer’s choreographer because he really challenges dancers and helps them get to a new point in their journey. It happened to me and I have been his muse for almost 20 years. Dancers don’t look the same when they work with him and I’m not just being bias. Not that they didn’t look amazing before, but they always look better and I think it’s because of the feeling and dynamics in his choreography. So, I would attribute our success to the dynamisms in his choreography and what he asks of the artists in front of him.

And perhaps what I offer is making sure the audience can feel what we are feeling. Many dancers that come to work with us are faced with the challenge of presenting their heart, soul, passion and individuality while also supporting your brand all at the same time.

How do you and Dwight balance the duties of running a company?

Well, it used to be where I was just the muse and he would choreograph all the work on me and then we would teach it to everybody. Now he has many muses in the company which is so fantastic. So, I have taken on more of a development part in the company where I am raising funds and things like that. I have pretty much always been doing that, but now I am doing it even more and it’s great. Now I can also be more of an artistic advisor to the company dancers. It really is important that they not only see me perform, but also be able to talk to me about their artistic approach and what they are doing with their work.

What qualities do you look for in a dancer?

I definitely look for sound technique and that’s a sound technique in any form that you have. Obviously we would like it in ballet because ballet is the form of most dance. And if you have a good form of ballet you can pretty much dance anywhere because you have to know your body. We also look for dancers who are not impeded by their technique yet they let their technique literate them and with that they are able to be susceptible to all different types of movement. We also look for strong personalities and people who are open and nice to work with.

Do you have any advice for the next generation of dancers?

My advice is just to evolve your passion. Without passion there’s nothing really. It just can’t be about technique. It has to be about why you are actually dancing. Think back to the first time you were inspired. For me, this whole dancing things is about connection and it’s about communication through that connection to the audience. People want to be moved when they come to the theater.

How is contemporary ballet changing the scope of the dance industry today?

When we first started Complexions everyone was saying oh you are mixing all these different styles, but actually dance is dance is dance. And I am so glad that line is blurred and becoming even more blurred because it is necessary. A lot of choreographers are seeing the benefits of combining classicism and contemporary. And better classical dancers are the ones that can use their back, round their spines and pull of center. It’s all about that fusion of ballet and contemporary and I love seeing amazing ballet dancers performing contemporary works. And that’s actually where Dwight really soars because he is classically trained, but he totally understands all different types of movement.

Did you enjoy your experience on season 9 of So You Think You Can Dance and how are shows like this changing the way we look at dance?

Because Dwight and I come from the commercial side it has been a great experience for us each time we have come on the show. And the support Nigel [Lythgoe] gives us is really fantastic. I think it’s definitely a win-win for everybody in the dance world. I mean, two hours of dance on a major network. When has that been done? For me, it just exposes dance to the masses even more so. When the show started it was just doing the commercial side of dance, but now the show is representing the classical side with dancers like Chehon and Eliana. These classically trained dancers won the show because they were that diverse. How cool is that!

This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.


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