Desmond Richardson and Dwight Rhoden Celebrate Twenty Years of 'Mixing it Up'

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Photo: Courtesy Complexions Contemporary Ballet

Photo: Courtesy Complexions Contemporary Ballet

Complexions Contemporary Ballet founders Desmond Richardson and Dwight Rhoden have been moving forward steadily for the last two decades.

This November, they’ll pause and reflect on their past, present, and future during Complexions’ 20th-anniversary season run at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan from November 18 to 30. The Joyce program will feature three premieres: Rhoden’s Head Space, Marcelo Gomes’ Igual, and a new company work, The Groove. It will also include special guest appearances by Desmond Richardson and Misty Copeland.

Curious how the founders of Complexions got where they are today and where they plan to go next, {DIYdancer} sat down to speak with artist-in-residence Richardson and gain some insight.

According to Richardson, the company aims to move dance out of traditional settings, formats, and expectations. One way they work to achieve this is through programming.

“Complexions’ concerts blend a traditional structure that uses evening length pieces with the vignettes characteristic of Broadway-style productions,” Richardson explains.

Complexions works mostly in the contemporary ballet spectrum, which Richardson sees as different from the more broad genre of contemporary dance.

In contemporary ballet, Richardson believes line isn’t so important.

“It’s the angles, circles, emotions given off,” he says.

The description raises a question — does technique still play a role?

Photo: Courtesy of Complexions Contemporary Ballet

Photo: Courtesy of Complexions Contemporary Ballet

Richardson identifies contemporary ballet as a combination of weight shift, core strength, and balance — classical ballet forms where the dancer is pulling off the center and spine.

“You can release but you need something to release,” Richardson says in regards that the technique needs to be there first.

He cites quintessential examples of contemporary ballet like choreographers George Balanchine, William Forsythe, and Alonzo King and adds the likes of Francesca Harper, Camille Brown, and Sidra Bell up-and-coming contemporary ballet choreographers.

Though, the style is evolving.

“New choreographers are challenging it,” Richardson says. “And it’s supposed to morph…as long as there is form and line.”

Complexions Contemporary Ballet tries to combine styles and genres. The approach to mixing it up is to use all of the skills that their dancers have.

“Dance is all-encompassing,” Richardson says. “I’ve always seen it that way.”

Past teachers would tell him to pick one style and focus on it, but he just couldn’t.

“I just knew I wanted to dance, period…that’s what my career was based on,” Richardson says.

That’s the mindset Richardson hopes to inspire in his own dancers.

“When you’re versatile, [even if] you’re vulnerable, you’re not going to get uncomfortable,” he says.

This has become a trend.

Many classical ballet companies are challenging dancers to move beyond traditional confines as well and dancers like Wendy Whelan and Alessandra Ferri are leaving classical ballet to investigate work in contemporary dance and art.

When asked about Complexions’ relationship to this development in dance, Richardson responds, “We tend to keep moving forward. We end up trendy, but we don’t focus on it.”

Photo: Courtesy of Complexions Contemporary Ballet

Photo: Courtesy of Complexions Contemporary Balle

Though, even after 20 years, Richardson describes himself as “still learning how to run a longstanding arts institution.” He has some recommendations and words of caution for those hoping to follow suit.

“We jumped in,” he says, “I recommend others do more research, especially in this digital age with such readily available information, to thwart loopholes.”

He also points out that the world and the art world are consistently changing. To be a successful artist, “You have to be open to that change, and you should know about the changes,” he says. “So, keep an ear to the earth. Know what is going on, who’s coming up, the political issues in the world. These inform what you will create.”

Above all, Richardson stresses that one must have passion, focus.

“If you want to create a legacy do so,” he says. “Just proceed forward. Not everyone can…and you must find others with whom you align in the trenches. This will be a challenge, [but] those are the kinds of people you can move forward quickly with. And, once you find those people, allow them to help you. Delegate responsibility.”

So what’s the plan for the next 20 years? 

“We are open and receptive to new voices,” Richardson says. “What’s important to us is that the audience can see themselves in what is on the stage.”

Presently, Rhoden and Richardson are collaborating with a multitude of classical and contemporary artists from across the globe to produce an entirely new dance production of the The Great Gatsby.

With hopes of collaborating with still other artists in the future,  Richardson and Rhoden are poised to spend the next twenty years “mixing it up” in dance even more than they already have.

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