Complexions Contemporary Ballet is back at the Joyce in New York City this November with three programmes of ecclectic works. As I watched the company rehearse, I caught up with lead dancer, co founder and co director Desmond Richardson who told me more about the works, and the company's upcoming projects.

From Ballad Unto, a neoclassical work set to Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue and Cryin’ to Cry Out, danced to the songs of Jazz legend Jimmy Scott to Strum, a full company strong piece to the music of Metallica, your season at the Joyce features five New York premières, and very eclectic music. It's so diverse!

Desmond Richardson © Ani Collier
Desmond Richardson
© Ani Collier
Yes, we like it that way! Dwight Rhoden (co-founder and co-artistic director of CCB) and I danced in repertory companies, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and others… and now we find it nice to have this eclectic melange of music to work with. It’s quite special to see the audience engage with and experience this arc with us. We’ve noticed that we have introduced people to certain things. Some have said: “Oh, we didn’t think you could set this work to this particular score,” or “We didn’t know one could dance in that way to this music”. For us it is truly amazing to have the ability to engage the audience in that way.  

 

With the music as well as the movement?

Yes, with the music as well as the movement. People are receptive to both. Take Strum: Metallica’s music is rock. It’s loud. But the selection that we use relate, in some ways, to classical music. These guys are musicians, they’re not just ‘handbangers’… though that is part of their chorus. Importantly, they’re trained musicians and their range of music is astonishing. For Dwight’s (Rhoden) choreography, we compiled some of the movie scores and some of their hits, and the soundscape is really special. People love it!

With Cryin’ to Cry Out (also choreographed by Dwight Roden), we’re honouring the great music of Jimmy Scott, whose androgynous voice is quite unique. In the jazz era, people actually assumed it was a woman singing! He has inspired so many artists… Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughan… We were inspired by his voice, by his phrasing, and the way he talks about love, and that inspired the two pas de deux that we present here at the Joyce.

I’m really intrigued by Imprint/Maya (chor: Dwight Rhoden) a solo work which you will perform. I understand this work honours the life and work of Dr Maya Angelou. Is this the first of your season-long imprint series?

Yes, we would like to run this Icon Series over the season.This one, honouring Dr Maya Angelou is the first, but we’d like to follow with others. We had the opportunity to meet Maya Angelou when we were dancing with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and she has seen us both dance. She loved dance. She is someone whose words, whose actions, permeate societies. She inspires with her prose and her words, not only in African American culture, but in many contexts and societies.

Desmond Richardson in <i>Moonlight</i> © Sharen Bradford
Desmond Richardson in Moonlight
© Sharen Bradford
I think we can all relate to her words and, though hers was an African-American experience, it’s relatable to anyone’s. For this solo, to an original score by David Rosenblatt, we have decided not to use the words but to have a singer (Melanie Nyema) humming the words. It’s a very interesting approach. As we were rehearsing, Melanie Nyema was singing the words (note: the company is currently working to obtain the rights to use these) and at one point she hummed the song, like a lullaby, and we stopped right there and thought: that’s it! It can almost be too literal with the words, whereas the humming allows me, the dancer, the room to express the words.

One of the recurring images that Dwight (Rhoden) has asked me to work on is that state of being alert, on edge, as if I’m trapped in an endless ‘environment’, a cycle with no end. In the movements, like in Maya Angelou’s words, there is a reaching, a yearning for something outside the frame. The piece is also about contemplation. That’s where the work is at for the moment. Maybe it will evolve, and go on from there…

You’re dancing this solo work. Who are you on stage? Maya Angelou, yourself, someone or something else? How do you approach the responsibility of conveying her words with your movements?

I would say I’m all of these. I’m transient of her words, I express them through movement. I’m the tone of her voice, the tonality behind the words. I try to set forth an understanding of the words – I know the words, so I am all of these things at once: I’m reflective of her and her words, and, yes, I’m also myself.

Dwight wants me to embody the strength of Angelou’s character and so he asks of me that I  switch on – inside – and reach deeper than the physical. Of course the movement can start with a strong physical interpretation, but it has to go to another place. The work also introduces urban movements (Desmond started in hip hop) and I use these elements of popping and locking in the dance.

Complexions is 21! Happy Birthday! 

Yes this is our 21st season here at the Joyce, the theater that hosted our very first season. And it is really good for the dancers to be in New York. Many of them are not from New York, and it’s nice for them to get a taste of the audience here, because it is quite unique! Although, I must say that we’ve received the same energy from audiences in France, Australia, Poland and elsewhere as we do here. There is something directly palpable about this movement, about the work that we do here at Complexions that really touches people.

Ashley Mayeux, of Complexions Contemporary Ballet © Rachel Neville
Ashley Mayeux, of Complexions Contemporary Ballet
© Rachel Neville
It’s not ‘bombastic movement’, it’s more subtle, it’s dance that hits your core, that touches your heart, and I think that’s why audiences really relate to us.

You and Dwight have had beautiful careers, and you could literally be anywhere. Yet you’re still here in New York, pushing boundaries with Complexions. People are so hungry for the stage here! 

Yes, there is definitely a special energy in New York. Maybe it’s all the people and all the noises… There is so much going on at one particular time, it’s actually pretty hard to focus your energy on your work. This is especially true for young people coming to dance in the city. They get so excited about the city, and we try to ground them and tell them to really focus on their art.

I’m New York, and I think Complexions is also New York – we were bred here. New Yorkers are very passionate. People defend their views very strongly, they’re bombastic with it! It’s inspiring! And it’s Complexions, that is the identity of the company. And I know that I take that with me, and Dwight takes that with him, and we also give it to the company. We want to bring this energy, this focus, this individualism and this humanity to the stage.

It’s so important, because audiences come to the theater to be moved, they need you to express yourself. We tell our dancers: “When you’re up there on that stage, be sure to express yourself.” There can be no sugar-coating, and we insist on that point with our dancers, especially the younger ones.

It’s hard to grasp that as a young dancer, it takes maturity.

Yes, it’s hard. It takes ten years, really, to build a career and to know who you really are as a dancer. I joined the Ailey company when I was 18 and I was amongst these amazing artists. At the time, I could do the tricks, but just standing up there on that stage… I didn’t know how to do that… I didn’t know what I was doing. I hadn’t lived, I hadn’t loved.

We tell our dancers: “Don’t be rushed. Be honest with your time, with the moment. That’s how you learn.” Being honest, being in the moment, is what it takes to really grow as an artist. For me, things are much better now than when I was 20. Sure I could do all the jumps and all the tours, but there are much calmer things, that I can pull out from deep inside, and share with the audience, in a very real way. And they’re interested in that.

Complexions: The most culturally diverse dance company in the United States. Artistically, is this still a challenge today? How have things evolved?

I think we’re still at the forefront of contemporary ballet, still at the foreground of versatility. Multiculturalism… well the world has changed, so we might not be at the forefront of that curve any more, we’re in that curve, which is great! I think it’s important to continue on that thought.

Tercell Waters, of Complexions Contemporary Ballet © Jmanjo
Tercell Waters, of Complexions Contemporary Ballet
© Jmanjo

It’s very clear that we keep things diverse. Not just ethnically, but artistically, through the music that we use and the styles that we include – that’s also diversity. Diversity isn’t just ethnicity, it’s also mixing styles. Infinite possibilities, that’s what we all about!

You’re open to different choreographic voices?

Oh yes! Definitely! Forsythe’s Approximate Sonata is on the program tonight! Marcelo Gomes (Principal Dancer, ABT) choreographed a piece on the company last year. We’re a repertory company and we always have and always will work with other choreographers. We’re always open to new voices, we want choreographers to submit ideas!

It’s working with other choreographers that also fuels Dwight’s own choreography. It keeps things fresh.

What keeps you going? At the end of the day, what’s important for you? 

That I’ve moved people. I keep doing it because I love it. I want to use my skills, my craft, to inspire the younger dancers I’m working with. I want to encourage others. The stage is a sanctuary where you connect with the audience: you receive what the audience has to give you, and you give them what you have. 

We’re hurting as a society at the moment. If dance can ease that, even for that one hour we have on stage… that’s what it is all about. And I’ll keep doing that for as long as I can do it.

Complexions Contemporary Ballet © Rosalie O'Connor
Complexions Contemporary Ballet
© Rosalie O'Connor

Desmond Richardson founded Complexions Contemporary Ballet with fellow dancer and choreographer Dwight Rhoden in 1994. The creative duo has carried the company to international fame, and the ensemble has toured five continents and twenty five countries to date.

Complexions is today at the forefront of American dance, and an invaluable actor in New York’s City creative landscape.

Beyond 20, the company’s new campaign sees Complexions expand with offices and studios in Atlanta, where they wish to have their own school and creative space to continue to inspire and spread their infectious love of dance.