He’s been compared to Nureyev. On “So You Think You Can Dance,” Nigel Lythgoe called him one of the greatest dancers in the world today. And long before Misty Copeland, Desmond Richardson was the first black principal dancer for American Ballet Theatre. (Until Gwen Verdon snatched him away to join Fosse on Broadway.) He has performed with Alvin Ailey and William Forsythe and in 1994 co-founded Complexions Contemporary Ballet with Dwight Rhoden.
At 47, Richardson no longer performs regularly with Complexions but has instead taken on an educational role for the company, which plans to relocate to Atlanta this spring. In a phone conversation (an edited version appears below), he spoke of “giving over to his students” what it takes to achieve the kind of performance quality he is known for—dramatic, precise energy as concentrated as a coiled spring. Yet that term “performance quality” is maddeningly difficult to pin down in terms of pedagogy. Solid technique, yes. Musicality, yes. But also more. To spend time in the presence of Richardson himself—one of the benefits of the proposed Complexions Contemporary Ballet Academy—might just be the best way for his students to learn. —Karen Hildebrand
Dance Teacher: Since the announcement in 2013 that you would do only select shows with Complexions, you’ve been all over the place: ballet competition juror, dance competition director, convention faculty, event host, movie actor—not to mention performing eight shows a week for the Broadway run of After Midnight. And this fall (2015) you’re a guest artist with the new Glorya Kaufman School of Dance at University of Southern California. Would it be wrong to say that you’re still looking for your place in the next stage of your career?
Desmond Richardson: [laughs] I will say that as I mature, there are many things I see that I need to put my hand in. I’ve always seen myself not only as a dancer but a person who is a performer who can do many things. I’m just on the road of exploration at this moment.
Which of the many new roles you’ve been exploring gives you the most pleasure?
Giving back. Teaching. I absolutely love watching students have that revelation of “Oh, I understand that.” I had a student who said, “I found why I’m dancing because of something you said. You said, ‘Your technique liberates you. It doesn’t impede your process.’ For a long time I thought I had to be perfect.” And sure, we so want your technique to be in the proper place because it does fuel absolutely everything. But if you don’t put your heart, humanity, soul and passion in it, then we’re just looking at steps. And it’s not interesting.
The different settings—master classes, conventions, your company’s summer intensive—all require a different approach as a teacher. How do you address that?
In the conventions I realized that I’m watching a lot of kids train only for what they’re actually to perform. So when I say sous-sus or coupé, they don’t really know what that is. When I am at these conventions, I try to give that information to them, yet still make it fun, because I know that’s what it’s about, too.
Just because a dancer is a great performer doesn’t mean they’ll be a great teacher. How did you learn to teach what you’ve clearly embodied so well?
My teachers gave me information on how to teach while I was learning: Robert Christopher, Walter Raines, Mel Tomlinson, Penny Frank, Alvin Ailey, Denise Jefferson. I’m super-passionate about it, and I want to encourage and invigorate and inspire. There’s no big secret to it. I just do it. I’m definitely cognizant of what I’m saying, how I’m saying it. How can I be encouraging—yet demanding, challenging, and let them find their way?
What is your biggest challenge as a teacher?
Attention span. The generation we’re teaching, everything is immediate and visual. I see passive energy a lot. Where they’re like, “Oh, I don’t really want to work for it. I’m not going to sweat.” Well, we’re in a visceral, visual artform—you gotta sweat! I watch a lot of class-takers, and I’m not interested in class-takers. I’m interested in people who are coming to the floor with something to say. And I can help them say it in a very distinct and clear way. How can you perform the movement given to you? We’re instruments for the choreographers, and we breathe life into the work so that the choreographer can see it.”
What do you hope to find in Atlanta that you don’t have in NYC?
In New York we’re pretty transient, still going from rehearsal room to rehearsal room. That’s no longer interesting after 21 years. We need our own building; we want to train dancers. We want a junior company. I have family in Atlanta and many dear friends, and they were like, “Why don’t you consider Atlanta?” Atlanta is a hub, and the dance scene is brilliant there. And we can add something to it.
We have our syllabus that we’ve been working on for the past 15 years, and soon people will be able to be accredited in it. It includes the style of Complexions, the way the lines are pulled off-center. We’re looking to train dancers to be in the company or to go wherever they want to go, whether it’s Los Angeles to do commercial work or any of that.
It’s something we’ve been working on particular to contemporary ballet. Because there’s this issue—what is contemporary? In contemporary ballet, you’re using pointe shoes, you’re using modern movement with the creativity of the person who’s working through it—whether that person is Dwight [Rhoden], whether it’s Wayne McGregor, whether it’s Alonzo King, whether it’s William Forsythe. We are like-minded in that sense. But everybody is quite unique in their take on contemporary ballet—and it’s not just sliding around, if you will, in socks. It’s not just about movement, movement, movement. There is a structure of dance that is necessary for the audience. They take pleasure in your specific line. I definitely want to see all the contact improv from the folks who have mastered that. It’s absolutely breathtaking, but sometimes it’s nice to see a tendu within that. And an arabesque. A real one, not a battement.
Will you offer jazz or modern to complement the ballet training?
Absolutely. There are masters that have been doing this forever, from the godfather of contemporary ballet, Balanchine. Obviously he loved jazz—looking at Jack Cole and using some of those particular movements to fuel his ideas of neoclassical ballet. We had Danny Roberts teach Cunningham technique this summer, and it was really beneficial for the dancers—to have the body off of center but to be super-strong to place your body back on center. We want the dancers to really train in many different styles.
I received an injury when I was on Broadway doing After Midnight. I tripped over a cable and pulled my posterior lateral muscle on my left leg. I’ve never had an injury like that where it took me out of the show for almost two months. So it made me rethink a few things. Obviously the body is going to cooperate only so much. I do a lot of floor barre. I do isometric training with my muscles, sculpting. I like to keep my body refined. I’ve worked so hard, I don’t want to not have my line. Even if I’m not dancing, I will be in shape.
I saw you rehearse with Elizabeth Parkinson for Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out in 2004. She’s another example of a striking performer who now directs her own school.
When Elizabeth comes to the stage, she’s absolutely riveting and you’re just like [sharp intake of breath], “Did that happen?” And it’s magical. Watching performers like her who have this ability to just go inside—it’s otherworldly almost, where they look like they’re transformed. It’s those performers I wanted to emulate. Dancers who have that quality? There are only a handful. Sarita Allen, Renee Robinson, Judith Jamison—Nureyev, Baryshnikov. That’s the kind of training we want to give over to these students. To search for that, and if that’s inside of you, to bring it forth. DT
Karen Hildebrand is Dance Teacher’s editor in chief.
Photographed by Matthew Murphy