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Dancing for Real

On the cusp of celebrating their company’s milestone anniversary, Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, who co-founded the New York-based Complexions Contemporary Ballet in 1994, still have plenty to say, both onstage and off. And while they’ve recently wrapped up their annual season at the Joyce in Chelsea, which included a gala performance that also featured 20 students from Howard University, and works by, among others, Ricardo Amarante, Jenn Freeman and, of course, Rhoden, they are not resting on their laurels, terpsichorean or otherwise.

Desmond Richardson and Dwight Rhoden. Photograph by Geoffrey Miller

Indeed, Rhoden, a native of Dayton, Ohio who was born in 1962 and has choreographed more than 100 works, including for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, San Francisco Ballet and Mariinsky Ballet, met Richardson, 54, who was born in South Carolina and raised in Washington and Queens, NY—and whom the New York Times once described as, “one of the greatest dancers of his time”—met at the Ailey company in 1987, where they both danced for seven years. 

The rest, as they say, is history, including the pair each racking up prizes and credits along the way. Rhoden is a beneficiary recipient of awards, including from the New York Foundation for the Arts, as well as having received an honorary doctorate from the Boston Conservatory. He has also directed and choreographed for TV, film, theater and live performances, and has served as Artist-in-Residence at universities around the States, such as at Juilliard, UC Irvine and Skidmore College.

Richardson’s tributes are equally numerous, and include the 2007 Dance Magazine Award, the 2011 Capezio Award, Ailey Apex Award, and a Bessie for his performance in the late John Butler’s 2007 work, “After Eden.” In addition, Richardson was nominated in 2000 for a Tony for Fosse, and appeared in the 2002 Oscar-winning film, Chicago. In 2019, Richardson, a master teacher, received an honorary doctorate from the North Carolina School of the Arts in recognition of his extensive contributions to the field of dance. 

He had also been Rhoden’s choreographic muse for a number of years, and, with his co-artistic director, the pair has seen Complexions, which has been hailed by the Philadelphia Inquirer as being, “a matchless American dance company,” perform on five continents in more than 20 countries and to live audiences that number north of 300,000.

Add another 20 million television viewers, and Complexions Contemporary Ballet, with its multi-ethnic cast of 16 (ages 19-32), and whose talents are testament to sculpted lines and a hyperphysical aesthetic, has its finger on the pulse of all that is hip, while continuing to take the art form to new heights. Fjord Review caught up with the fiendishly busy duo by Zoom, with the topics ranging from their latest New York season to the secret of keeping a company afloat for nearly three decades.

Complexions Contemporary Ballet in “Ballad Unto” by Dwight Rhoden. Photograph by Stephen Pisano

Your latest dance coup, shall we say, is a long-term strategic partnership with Howard University. How did this collaboration come about, what does it entail, and what do you envision for the future?

Dwight Rhoden: At the moment, Desmond and I are adjunct professors, and there’s a plan for us to be more involved with the program fully, and also to initiate the ‘Nique,’ our technique. The overall plan is to shape and build the program out, and eventually have a new building.

Nique [will be] a staple, and we’ll finish codifying it, which is one of their major training systems. The reason [the partnership] came about is because I knew [Assistant Dean] Denise Saunders-Thomas through IABD [International Association of Blacks in Dance]. I had also been on diversity panels with her during Covid.

Desmond Richardson: Dean Phylicia Rashad has been a friend of ours for over 20 years. When she was coming into the position at the Chadwick Boseman College of Fine Arts, I saw her at the Kennedy Center Honors [in 2020] when her sister, Debbie Allen, was [being honored]. We were backstage and she said, “I have had this idea that I want you and Dwight to come through in Howard University, and I would love to have you involved in some way. Dwight was already having conversations with Denise, so it kind of organically came together.

That’s fantastic! So, can you please fill me in on Nique?

Dwight: Nique is a classically-based training system for contemporary ballet [that] we have developed. It’s the upper body in collaboration with the lower body; a total approach to dancing where you’re using your entire body to do all of your movement. Like in any class, it starts at the barre, comes through the center, and ends in large jumps, but it incorporates upper body and torso. 

In today’s day and age, you have to be able to use your entire body at some point. It’s a way for dancers to understand how their torso, ribs, and movement, on center and off, is related. Throughout class, it’s not just getting on your leg, but also trying to get off it.

Desmond: It’s a system of folding and unfolding. The dancers are rounding their backs, their extensions are super high. That’s a means to facilitate your legs in space, not just développé to your head; but that space is part of the kinesphere, and you’re using it. It’s the way we like to see it.

April Watson and Joe Gonzalez in “The Dreamers” by Justin Peck. Photograph by Taylor Craft

Audiences like to see it, as well. And another great thing you’ve recently initiated is the notion of a Poetjournalist-in-Residence, currently Aaron Dworkin, whose work, “Dream On,” was featured on the gala evening of your Joyce season. What was the genesis of that?

Dwight: Aaron and I met on his podcast, Arts Engines [and] we kind of clicked. I had done some research on him prior, and in that interview, we were talking about the third ballet I did for San Francisco Ballet. Later he called me and said he had an idea, and I thought, “Oh, okay, a Poetjournalist.” Because I [use] so much spoken word, and Desmond and I have always been in love with rap, hip-hop, words in general all throughout our repertory, so we thought, “This is perfect. Let’s harness this moment.” I can go further with someone who writes all the time, and can do something more comprehensive.

We are probably the first ballet company that has a Poetjournalist-in-Residence. I see us talking about the world, humanity. I look forward to it; I’m a big poet person—hearing words and being able to create movement to that.

Desmond: A lot of people don’t know, but Dwight generally writes a lot of his thoughts and ideas down before he gets to any sort of movement, i.e., it’s very interesting when we read critiques that [say] there’s not a forward-thinking process, where there is, in fact, a process to all of it. It’s always pretty amazing how it comes out, and his take on movement, how it comes to the dancers, and how he is open to allowing the dancers to breathe life into it.

Your season at the Joyce was eclectic, huge and, well, a tad surprising. For instance, April Watson and Joe González performed Justin Peck’s 2016 pas de deux, “The Dreamers,” a company premiere, and the first time the piece has been performed by any troupe other than New York City Ballet.  

Dwight: We know Justin; he’s a friend [and] we reached out to him. My dream is to have him do an original work for us, but [there’ve been] time constraints. I still wanted to get something, so Desmond mentioned him [and] we asked, “What do you have?” 

He loves the company, and it’s our first time, [so] he sent over a number of things. I picked the duet [because] whenever Desmond and I are making choices from other choreographers, nine times out of 10, it broadens our dancers, expands them, gives them another type of experience. That’s what Justin’s work is doing. It’s a different approach to what they’re used to with me [but] it’s been really special to watch them meet the mark. 

Complexions Contemporary Ballet rehearse “Crying Out Loud” by Dwight Rhoden. Photograph by Taylor Craft

How would you describe your creative partnership?

Desmond: Respect, I think that’s one thing. Loyalty. I’m loyal to a fault. I really respect Dwight’s work. I respect how he communicates to me, [and] what he has to say is very, very important. We’ve always had that. It’s not something we question. If we disagree, we go to our corners, figure it out, come back together; that’s a common thread. Listening to one another, communicating, as well. He’s family, a friend who goes beyond the dancing art. We gravitated towards each other as humans first, then as dancers.  

Dwight: Desmond was inspiration. I had never met anyone like him. I wanted to create, and luckily, he was open and wanted to be a part of whatever I was doing. I was still dancing full-time, and we found each other in the dancing. First, we have a friendship; we would stay on the phone all night long, [though] we were mainly talking about dance. We were two young guys who were just in love with what we were doing. “Wow,” I’d think, “this is the kind of dancer I’d like to be.”

And second—Desmond couldn’t wait to dance. For me, that was thrilling, and it also lends itself to me being able to work with him and start to build a vocabulary. I’m grateful for that. We don’t agree on everything, like he said, but at the end of the day, we always come back to Complexions. Complexions is the love child. It’s the thing we made together and now it’s flourishing 30 years later. 

A 30th anniversary is sometimes signified by a pearl, which brings me to this question: What’s the secret to keeping a company together for nearly three decades, which seems monumental, especially these days? 

Desmond: It just stems from Dwight and I having a particular passion about dance, having a through-line. Let’s do something for real—not that the dance isn’t for real—but staying the course in what we believe in. How we see the dance. Yes, we want it technical, yes, we want it passionate. And entertaining—we’re not afraid to be that. We want audiences to sit forward in their seats. There’s something really palpable from Complexions to our audiences around the world. 

They’re the same in New York, the same in L.A., or France or Italy, or any of the other places we visit. There’s something that’s coming off the stage that is a particular authenticity. We want to maintain that and not go to another place; that’s important for us. It’s in line with our original idea—putting it all on the stage—all or nothing—every eye, every head—giving 110% at all times.

The dancers are also unique, necessary and valid, and there’s a lane for them, as it was told to me, told to Dwight—we’ve put together very interesting dancers today. From non-binary, they’re being authentically themselves, and this is important, because they’re needing to voice who they are authentically, and not fit into a mold. If you hone your technique, have a finely-tuned instrument, you can do whatever you need to do.

Dwight: I don’t know what the secret is. All I know is it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. We make it by the hair on my chinny chin chin and somehow get it done. All the noise and all the other stuff along the way, it can be easy to get distracted. But I’ve always been a person who likes to talk about what’s going on in the world now. I’m a ‘now’ guy as opposed to ‘then.’

It’s [also] an investment. The thing with Complexions, and it’s the very reason that Desmond and I wanted to put together a project—that’s what it was, a project, it wasn’t a company at the time—we wanted to explore, and we really thought that there’s a beauty in knowing something. I say this all the time—the beauty of the fact that someone sitting next to me comes from a completely different background, they may have training I don’t know anything about—how they were raised and what they bring to the table. 

The beauty of the differences extends past racial lines. That’s a big part, yes, we wanted a multi-cultural [troupe]—but at the foundation is the beauty of appreciating our differences. The world would be such a boring place if we had come from the same place, had the same experiences. What sense does it make to have friction as opposed to, “Hey, tell me about you. I want to know.” That’s a point that people don’t embrace all the time. But we’re getting there.

We were two young guys who were just in love with what we were doing

What advice do you have for aspiring dancers?

Dwight: Train, but also live your life so that you have something to bring back to the dancing, so that you’re not just a vessel of technique. You have to be able to bring some of your life experiences. The people that bring a piece of themselves to the movement are probably the ones who move you the most. It’s not that dancers today can’t do that, but now you have to encourage them and make it available to them—prompt their minds. 

Dancers have everything on their phones. The world is there. One of the things I have found necessary with this generation to help inspire them is to go deeper and reach a little further—not rely on their physical acumen. They can do just about anything. They’re highly skilled. What Desmond and I try to do is ask them why. Why are you doing this step right now? What does this mean to you? If you don’t know, just make something up. 

Desmond: Carmen de Lavallade—I was checking in on her—she’s been our artistic advisor from day one. “How’s everything going?” she said, “How are the young people doing?” I said, “They’re doing really amazing. I see they can do so much.” “Is there something for you that’s missing?” she asked. “Not missing,” but to Dwight’s point, it’s inhabiting, where you’re engaged, every finger every eye, then you’re susceptible to the spontaneity of the moment. You are so finely-tuned and prepared. 

When the spontaneity happens you’re ready for it. Carmen said, “We don’t want them surprised. Keep encouraging them.” That’s amazing, because here’s a person who’s seen me since I was 15 or 16, and now in my 50s, I can give her a call and still check in on her and say “This is what’s happening.” We are still pushing forward for the excellence for all who came before us—Mary Hinkson, Ulysses Dove—they all had things to say.

Dwight: And Alvin [Ailey]. There’s always been something that Alvin or Judy [Jamison] said. They always had great little kernels. They come out of my mouth, out of Desmond’s mouth. There will be stuff that will be quoted, as well. “Everything you’ve been a part of is a part of you.” You don’t just shed that; it kind of informs you. 

That’s actually quite profound. What’s also a bit weighty is where you see yourselves in the next five to 10 years, meaning, do you think about the ‘R’ word, retirement?

Dwight: We recognize that we’re not going to do this forever. We are already looking at succession, but haven’t gotten that far with it. We’re looking at what would be the next model for directorship. We see [that] there would be two to three directors—a collective type. Eventually I would like to create as long as I can—I don’t need to direct. The company will always have my work, though maybe in the future it will not be there. Who knows?

But there is an outlet for the future, with definitive concrete plans. We want our school to be flourishing. Educational programs are always important. We will always be involved with young people. We love the training aspect of dance. I want to keep creating. Desmond is an incredible director and coach. We want to do it as long as we—as I—can do it, but scurrying to the right as others come in. 

Desmond: Dwight made me think about Christian [Darch], and Lucy [Stewart] in the company now, and the younger ones, who have come through summer intensives and workshops. They’re the next crop—Jasmine [Heart Cruz]. We’ve known these dancers since they were 12. To see them come through and be in the company, it’s lovely and wonderful to behold. 

We’re in gratitude of being able to share—that all the artists are able to share that portion of themselves. I’m glad we were imbued with that energy, that they look to us as mentors, teachers. It’s important we continue that, and, whoever is coming through in the future, we’ve got to be able to pay it forward in a compassionate and challenging way, for sure.

Victoria Looseleaf

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based international arts journalist who covers music and dance festivals around the world. Among the many publications she has contributed to are the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and KCET’s Artbound. In addition, she taught dance history at USC and Santa Monica College. Looseleaf’s novella-in-verse, Isn't It Rich? is available from Amazon, and and her latest book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet with illustrations by JT Steiny, was recently published by Red Sky Presents. Looseleaf can be reached through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In, as well as at her online arts magazine ArtNowLA.



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