Richardson, Desmond 1969–
Desmond Richardson 1969–
Dancer, singer, choreographer
With his technical virtuosity and statuesque and expressive demeanor, Desmond Richardson has been hailed as among the great modern dancers of his time. Lara Hartley poetically described him on the Ballet Magazine website as a “moving sculpture, body that is art, passing through time and space with power and grace—all parts connected, never stopping but heart-stopping in beauty and complexity. And hand movement that looks like Michelangelo’s David come to life.” Richardson’s far-flung interests and roots in street dancing have propelled him to participate in radically different enterprises, ranging from classical ballet, to envelope-pushing modern dance, to dancing on popular music videos, to singing and dancing in Broadway musicals. Taking to heart the advice of mentor Alvin Ailey, if Richardson is capable of doing something in the dance world, he does. “Doing it” has also meant co-founding with dancer/choreographer Dwight Rhoden the troupe Complexions, which has attracted a great deal of attention for its stellar roster and creative compositions.
Born in 1969 and raised in the Queens borough of New York City, Richardson was immersed in a musical household. His absentee father sang with rhythm and blues group The Manhattans, and his grandmother was a singer and church choir director. His mother, a single-parent of Caribbean descent, was sympathetic to young Desmond’s need for music and movement in his life. He sang in the church choir and at age ten discovered street dancing when he went to a block party where he saw three men break dancing. They were poplocking, a kind of street dance in which dancers make synchronized staccato movements that look like they are locking and unlocking their joints in a way that is both robotic and fluid. For three years Richardson enjoyed poplocking and other kinds of street dancing—salsa, reggae, and soul—before he started looking for something more.
Although Richardson participated in several sports, including gymnastics, it did not satisfy him after he discovered ballet via television. “I used to watch Great Performances when there was ballet or opera on, and I’d get enthralled,” he told Susan Reiter of Dance Magazine. “I always wanted to dance.” His mother was supportive, and though she could not afford dancing lessons, she bought him a subscription to Dance Magazine and took him and his two brothers to museums. As a high school freshman, Richardson used his street dancing skills to audition for a year long scholarship to the High School of the Performing Arts in New York City. He won the scholarship and during his time there he studied ballet, modern, and jazz dance techniques. As he recalled, to Dance Magazine’s Valerie Gladstone, “Fortunately, my teachers were perfectionists. They made me realize what I had to do to accomplish my goals.”
The following year, Richardson went a step further, auditioning for the Alvin Ailey School of Dance. Ailey recognized the young man’s potential and awarded him a scholarship. Indeed, because Richardson was so flexible from all the poplocking he had done, he quickly
At a Glance…
Born in 1969, in Sumter, SC Education: Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, 1984-86.
Career: Ailey Repertory Ensemble, 1986; Alvin Ailey Dance Company, 1987-94; Complexions, co-founder, 1994-; Frankfurt Ballet, dancer, 1994-96; American Ballet Theatre, principal dancer, 1997-99; Broadway dancer, 1998-; actor 2001-.
Awards: Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts, Manhattan, NY, merit scholarship, 1982-83; Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, merit scholarship, 1983-86; International Acades des Tanz, Cologne, Germany, summer academy scholarship, 1984-85; Presidential Scholar Award for dance, 1986; 71st Annual Academy Award life presentation, featured guest artist; Bessie Award, 1992; Complexions received New York Times Critics Choice Award, 1995; Tony award nomination for role in Fosse, 1999.
Address: Office —Complexions, P.O. Box 2087, Grand Central Station, New York, NY 10163.
adapted to the classical ballet technique. Even so, most ballet dancers start training at young ages, not fifteen years old, so he had his work cut out for him, and the rigidity of classical ballet took some of the joy from his dancing. Then one day while watching the Alvin Ailey Company rehearse, Richardson had a revelation. “The girls came out moving from the gut with real passion,” he remembered to USA Weekend’s Touree. “I saw how I could incorporate the passion I had from my street dancing with the technique I was learning. I saw how I could bring some magic to the stage.”
In 1986 Alvin Ailey invited the then seventeen-year-old Richardson to join his company. For the first year Richardson was part of the junior troupe, called the Ailey Repertory Ensemble. Then he joined the mature troupe. During his eight years with the Alvin Ailey Company, Richardson learned ballets by Jose Limon, John Butler, Elisa Monte, among others, and earned a 1991 Bessie Award for his performance in After Eden. He also learned about choreography and such theatrical aspects of production as costumes, lighting, and set design. “Alvin was a great mentor. He made me aware of everything—from costumes to lights,” he told Gladstone. Ailey also encouraged Richardson to use his many talents, whatever they might be. Richardson has continually strove to make his body more communicative to audiences. As he told Dance Magazine ’s Rose Eichenbaum, he recommends to fledgling dancers: “Learn what is being expressed inside you and come from an honest places. If you want to speak, then learn how to with different inflections and in different ways.”
From the beginning of his professional dance career, Richardson has continually enjoyed a professional life separate from the concert stage. For example, in 1988 Michael Jackson invited him to perform on his “Bad” video and since then Richardson has appeared on other videos and danced live with such artists as En Vogue, Aretha Franklin, Madonna, and Prince. He admires the motion picture Turning Point, in which ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov both danced and acted. Among his many other activities, Richardson has studied singing and acting to further his flexibility as a performer.
In 1994 Richardson and choreographer Dwight Rhoden left the Alvin Ailey Dance Company to found a new dance company called Complexions, a group of roughly twenty dancers, whose numbers expand when necessary. It was meant to be a loosely formed group of professional dancers who would perform as needed among their other professional activities. It would also be a vehicle for Rhoden and other young choreographers to express themselves artistically. At the Complexions website the group expressed its mission: “Complexions is conceived with the intent of bringing together many artists—exemplyfing their uniqueness in culture, race, size and background. Its mission is to reflect and share the intensity, freedom, and energy of our time by harnessing various multi-media: film, television, improvisation, fashion, photography, poetry, theatre, urban street dance and pop culture. These elements combine with a message to involve each individual dancer’s persona and the collective energy of the audience.”
In an era when most new dance startups fail, Complexions met with early success. Their New York premiere at Symphony Space had three sold-out shows and earned accolades. “We had no idea the audience would respond so favorably,” Richardson told Gladstone. Dance critics responded favorably as well. After earning the coveted New York Times Critics Choice Award in 1995, the group was invited to perform at major European dance festivals, including The Isle DeDance Festival in Paris in 1998, the Maison de la Dance Festival in Lyon, France, and the Holland Dance Festival, in 1999. Subsequently Complexions toured the United States, Europe, South America, and Asia. Although the troupe often features Rhoden’s creations, it also performs works by other contemporary choreographers.
At the same time as he danced cutting-edge works with Complexions, Richardson wanted to work with an established ballet company, so he auditioned for William Forsythe, director of the Frankfurt Ballet, who was pushing the boundaries of classical ballet. Working under Forsythe, Richardson honed his skills in what is known as improvisational technique. “He forced me to find out where the movement inside me really comes from,” Richardson explained to Gladstone. “He makes you see how you make decisions.” While in Europe, Richardson also learned a different approach to dance, one that emphasizes the work of art over the individual star dancer. As he told Gladstone, “There, a performance is all about the work. It’s not about the performers.”
In 1997 Richardson became the first African-American principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre and was chosen by choreographer Lar Lubovitch to star in Othello. Describing Richardson as a “dance linguist,” Lubovitch told Gladstone that he “speaks eloquently in all styles. Nothing he performs is flat or uninflected.” According to Richardson, he encountered some skepticism at the American Ballet Theatre, particularly when he wanted to dance the role of Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. “When I went there, many people with the company seemed surprised that I had been trained in ballet,” he recalled to Gladstone. “It’s so ridiculous. I’d like to think my color didn’t have anything to do with my not being asked to play big classical roles. But given my technical abilities, I don’t know what to think.” Among the smaller roles he danced with the company were Tybalt in Romeo and Julliet, and Carabosse, the evil fairy in The Sleeping Beauty. New York Times dance reviewer Jennifer Dunning described Richardson as “one of the most majestic dancers ever to tread the Met stage. Mr. Richardson towered over the dance. His brooding, regal Othello was a man of explosive rage and tenderness, whose frantic yet powerful solos suggested a strong man out of control.” That the performance in which Richardson appeared was filmed for later broadcast on Public Broadcasting Corporation’s renowned series Great Performances must have been very satisfying, bringing Richardson full circle from the youth who became enamored of ballet because of PBS television broadcasts.
The 1998 Broadway review Fosse: A Celebration in Song and Dance honored deceased American theater and film choreographer and director Bob Fosse by presenting selections chosen from his eleven Broadway shows, including All That Jazz. Richardson danced in six pieces, including the solo “Percussion 4” and the ensemble piece “Cool Hand Luke.” “Audiences are stunned by Desmond,” veteran singer-dancer Gwen Verdon told Gladstone in a New York Times review. “He’s totally different from any performer I’ve ever seen. Besides his amazing musicality, he moves like a panther.” For his part, Richardson explained his affinity for Fosse’s work. “I always wanted to do musical theater, and I knew a lot about Fosse,” he told Susan Reiter in Village Voice, adding that he was drawn to Fosse’s fantasy sequence from All That Jazz because “there’s an amazing vulnerability to the work, and there’s such passion in it.” Moreover, “jazz is in my body,” he told Gladstone. “I was a street dancer before I was anything else.”
Although Richardson views himself first as a concert dancer, he enjoys doing film because as he told Gladstone, “you can get across to an audience much more quickly and directly than you can in a dance performance. I admire Baryshnikov in the film White Nights, where he can be true to himself as both a dancer and an actor.” He sang and danced in the film Chicago, starring Richard Gere and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and danced in Without a Word, starring Patrick Swayze and Lisa Niemi. Despite his experience and acting and singing lessons, when Richardson auditioned for the musical The Look of Love, based on a well-known Burt Bacharach song, he got the jitters, as he recalled to Valerie Gladstone of Dance Magazine, “I began to tense up and worry about whether I would do it right. But I talked myself into relaxing, because I love to sing.” Not only does Richardson enjoy singing, but he performed well enough to be hired immediately for the Broadway musical.
Performing in a wide variety of works in many styles with other renowned performers in venues worldwide, Richardson seems to have it all. Yet he continually tries to broaden his perspective and experiences. “I fill myself up with as many things as possible,” he told Gladstone in a 2003 interview. “I like works that are completely out of the ordinary. Alvin taught me the importance of versatility. He said: ‘If you can sing, you have to sing; if you can act, act. You’ll bring all that to the stage, and it’s so very relevant.’” With so much energy and diverse talent, it is impossible to predict where Richardson will turn up next.
Back Stage, July 1, 1994, p. 36; January 17, 1997, p. 40; December 10, 1993, p. 33.
Back Stage West, October 29, 1998, p. 18.
Cincinnati Enquirer, August, 12, 2002.
Cincinnati Post, March 7, 2001, p. 1B.
Dance Magazine, April 1992, pp. 94-96; April 1993, pp. 68-71; April 1994, pp. 76-77; May 1997, pp. 42-45; November 1998, p. 102; February 2002, pp. 49-54, 119; March 2002; February 2003, pp. 32-27.
Guardian (London, England), October 12, 1998, p. 12.
New York, January 3, 1994, p. 56; Une 9, 1997, p. 87; November 24, 1997, pp. 91-92.
New York Times, March 20, 1987, p. C17; December 14, 1989, p. B3; December 24, 1989, p. 28; December 8, 1991, p. H10; December 22, 1991, p. 56; December 24, 1992, p. C9; December 29, 1992, pp. 52-53; June 13, 1994, p. B3; December 4, 1994, p. 52; December 14, 1994, p. 13; January 17, 1995, p. B2; January 10, 1997, p. C3; January 11, 1997, p. 18; September 20, 1997, p. B9; November 8, 1997, p. A19; June 12, 1998, p. B24; June 30, 1998, p. B5; December 27, 1998, p. AR33; November 25, 2002, p. E5.
New Yorker, June 2, 1997, p. 66.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 12, 1999, p. D3.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), February 1, 2003.
USA Weekend, June 24, 2001.
Village Voice, December 30, 1998; November 8, 2000; January 23, 2002; January 1, 2003.
Wall Street Journal, June 10, 1997, p. A16.
“Complexions,” Ballet Magazine, www.ballet.co.uk/magazines (January 23, 2003).
“Desmond Richardson,” Complexions, www.com-plexionsdance.org (January 23, 2003).
“On ‘Higher Ground’ with Complexions and Desmond Richardson,” Dance Insider, www.dancein-sider.com (January 23, 2003).
“Press Release,” BlackNLA, www.blacknla.com (January 23, 2003).
—Jeanne M. Lesinski
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