Performing Arts: Dance
November 14, 2011
When the curtain goes up and audiences witness Desmond Richardson on stage--an audible gasp of pleasure barrels through theaters followed by rock-star squeals and rapturous applause for one of this generation’s most thrilling performers.

American born and grown, Richardson celebrates twenty-five years as a professional dancer. This milestone is marked by his final performances at the Joyce Theater (Nov. 16 - 30) as a touring member of Complexions, the company he co-directs with choreographer, Dwight Rhoden.

A rarity in the dance community, Richardson is a technical and stylistic chameleon. Endowed with extreme flexibility and joint articulation, Richardson's superbly muscled body rivals the power and speed of a Cheetah.

In a “4,5,6…” nutshell: Hip hop turned him on, the High School of the Performing Arts prepared him, Alvin Ailey shaped him, Billy Forsythe elevated him, American Ballet Theater refined him, Broadway enthralled him and Complexions drove the rest of Desmond Richardson’s dance career.

On the cusp of this major career shift, I spoke with Desmond Richardson about his dance legacy.

My most vivid memory as a dancer is when I was invited as a student to appear in "Memoria," Alvin Ailey’s tribute to Joyce Trisler. I just couldn’t wait to get on stage, and from that moment on, I decided to dance on as many world stages as possible!

Actually, when I was growing up, I thought of pursuing a singing career like my father who was part of a professional “Doo-Wop” group. But I was crazy about street dance until I turned on the TV and saw Rudolf Nureyev dance. My mother was shocked to see me sit still and watch a ballet for two hours, but he was stunning! His sculpted face and body, the rawness of his movement and technical prowess, was like nothing I’d ever seen or felt before. Suddenly I realized -- that’s what I wanted to do. Fortunately, I was accepted into the High School of Performing Arts. That’s where I learned all forms of dance and gained valuable information from teachers like Penny Frank who would tell me not to try and look like anyone but myself.

After I joined the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1987, I wanted to dance everything, but that was not how the company worked then. You had to come up the ranks; learn all the parts in all the dances you might one day solo in. I couldn’t wait to dance the “Wade in the Water” section of “Revelations,” but before that ever happened Ailey spent hours coaching me on how to ripple my hands or initiate movement in the spine to resemble flowing water. Each and every part of the body was important to Alvin who insisted I learn how to just stand and “be”—draw the audience in. It’s as much about the silent intensity as the technical prowess. And yea, by watching mesmerizing dancers like Judy Jamison, I saw how she could make a simple, very small movement resonate volumes.

At that time, the Ailey Company was based at 1515 Broadway, and Alvin was always walking the halls, and talking to dancers. He was so large, yet so quiet, and said things like—'young man, I want you to nurture your gift. Your time is coming, but you will have to work hard.' It took me years to understand what he was talking about—but finally, I got it.

Five years after Alvin died and Judy (Jamison) took over, I knew it was time to go. I gravitated to Europe to perform with Billy Forsythe and the Frankfurt Ballet. That was a magical time for me. You know, Billy was very dear friends with Pina Baush. Whenever she was in town, the company rehearsed in our studios plus she would watch our rehearsals and he would watch hers.

Like Ailey, Billy was a very nurturing artist. He based his technique on a combination of modalities based on Laban movement, kinesiology and Contact Improvisation—as well as Balanchine’s neo-classical technique (Balanchine was his idol). He wanted us to understand how to shift weight quickly, and listen carefully to other people on stage so you could catch their weight and find your own. Nothing was arbitrary to Billy--he was extremely specific about the body’s exact shape, effort, weight, and design in space.

Then one day in 1997 I got a call from American Ballet Theater inviting me to join the company as a Principal Dancer because Lar Lubovitch wanted me to star in his new ballet “Othello.” I thought it was a terrific challenge, so I packed up and went back to NYC. I loved dancing with ABT but I felt like there was a ballet ceiling I could never crack. Sure, I danced Othello and Tharp among other things, but I never got a chance to dance major classical ballet male roles that I learned like Romeo & Juliet, Giselle or Swan Lake.

Much of my time at ABT was spent twiddling my thumbs until I stumbled on a rehearsal for a Broadway show in ABT’s building at 890 Broadway. Gwen Verdon saw me in the hall and said, “Honey, what are dong here? Saw you at the Met, you were wonderful—but why don’t you come in and learn a few steps.” That’s how I was cast in the Broadway show Fosse.

The one place I really wanted to dance though was New York City Ballet. I even told Peter (Martins) how much I admired the Balanchine repertory and loved the company, but Peter didn’t think it was the right place for me. Maybe if I wanted to dance there today, it would be a different story, although it’s still shocking to see how few African American dancers are represented in either New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theater.

Overall, I was pretty lucky. I met Michael Jackson and danced in his music video "Bad" and even spoke with Nureyev after an Alvin Ailey Company performance at the Paris Opera Ballet. Already weakened from AIDS in 1992, Nureyev sat very pulled up, scarf wrapped around his neck, and chapeau tipped to the side. When I came over he said 'Mon dieu, formidable!'

Right now, Broadway has a special appeal for me because you apply singing, acting and dancing skills. That’s the direction I’m headed in now along with my duties as Co-Artistic Director of Complexions plus my coaching and teaching. I mean, Dwight Rhoden (Co-founder and choreographer of Complexions) and I felt an immediate kinship as dancers with Ailey. In 1994 when we pulled together dancers for a sold out program at Symphony Space, we knew then we had something. And indeed, we do.

CI The winner of this year’s Capezio Award, and many other honors, people in the dance community draw comparisons between Richardson and Baryhsnikov calling him “ the Black Baryshnikov.” No matter what you think about dance, you will be amazed by Desmond Richardson’s extraordinary on-stage generosity and artistry. Alvin would be proud to see how his master student learned to “pull the audience in.”

On November 17 at the Joyce Theater, “The CELEBRATE...DESMOND RICHARDSON” evening will honor Desmond's performing years with Complexions. It opens with a video celebrating his rich career followed by the work WHAT COME, TEHREAFTER and PLACES PLEASE. An after party will be held at MILLESIME.

Desmond Richardson will also dance every night of the season November 15 – 20, and November 22 – 27.
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