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Ballet’s Desmond Richardson on Life As a Muse

Courtesy of Complexions Dance Company/Columbia
Artists Management

Seasoned dancer Desmond Richardson’s intimidatingly statuesque form isn’t all he has going for him — a former principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, he regularly guests with the world’s premier companies and soloists (when he’s not busy co-directing the groundbreaking New York modern ballet troupe Complexions Contemporary Ballet with visionary choreographer Dwight Rhoden). Tomorrow, Complexions performs the world premiere of a new production of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella with the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Richardson spoke to Vulture about his unique relationship with Rhoden, and the persistently pasty face of contemporary ballet.

You’ve said that you started Complexions to bring some diversity and modernity to the ballet world. Have you seen a difference here in the city?
It still totally needs to diversify. And, unfortunately, in my opinion, it’s a little stale in all the companies at the moment. I would just prefer to see the dancers really doing a mélange of things, instead of one particular style. We can’t stay in the forties and the twenties and the… 1400s. We’re just not there! Why not investigate different ways of movement? That’s what dance is: it’s an investigative art form. Otherwise, audiences are just coming to see dancers do phenomenal lines that they really don’t connect to.

And do you see companies diversifying at all?
It’s still pretty much status quo. I’m perplexed by it, especially living in New York City when you have a company like New York City Ballet and it’s not a diverse place. You miss out on a whole lot of people who would be very interested in a company, but when they don’t see themselves represented, they say, “Oh, this is not for me,” and they move on. They go to Europe.

…which is what you and Dwight are working against. What’s your relationship like?
He’s choreographing and I’m sort of the muse. That’s the way we started the company: he began doing a lot of movement on me, and we’d give out the phrases to the dancers and he would shape the movement to them.

How exactly does one become a muse?
We were both part of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre for a number of years and we both saw there was a certain commonality in our dancing. We were paired a lot together. He began setting movement on me, and I literally understood immediately where he wanted to go. He can do a phrase, and I can answer it with the sort of movement he needs it to be.

You were the first African-American principal dancer at ABT.
It’s crazy. Doing Othello there was such a wonderful honor, and I didn’t even know until it was told to me. It was like, “Oh! Wow! Okay.”

So did it ever make you feel like a novelty?
No, I don’t ever think about it that way. I know — people are always like, “How can you not think about it?” But really, truthfully, honestly, I try to think about the art of dance, learn it as best I can, do it to the highest quality I can, and I think that has no color. Concentrating on the color thing could get me in a lot of trouble — actually, if I think about it too much, it’s too much to bear.

Do you have groupies?
I think I do? My brother told me I need to go on YouTube to see the fanatics. He was like, “You have 60,000 hits on this solo!” But the fanatical fans are in Japan. They bring gifts of chocolate because they know I love chocolate. It’s a cute situation. —Rebecca Milzoff

Ballet’s Desmond Richardson on Life As a Muse