Gaining New Ground
Complexions Contemporary Ballet Leaps to Gwinnett Stage
written by COLLEEN ANN MCNALLY | photography courtesy of Complexions Contemporary Ballet; Jaemanjoo
When Desmond Richardson is alone in his kitchen, he might dance to his “amalgam” of music — a varied playlist from different genres of hip hop to classical, jazz to rock. As a founding artistic director and the artist-in-residence of Complexions Contemporary Ballet, the multi-talented Richardson cites his wide variety of tastes to growing up in a family filled with musicians.
To say he has built that varied taste in music and dance into a successful career would be quite the understatement. Just a sample from his deep well of accomplishments includes performing on the most esteemed international stages, directing choreography for celebrities like Prince and Lenny Kravitz and praise in The New York Times, hailing him “among the great dancers of his time.”
Needless to say, it’s been a journey ever since Richardson was paired to work with a fellow principal dancer while at the world famous Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. It was the start of a great collaborative partnership — one that has endured more than 20 years — with the linear and classical Dwight Rhoden (who comes with his own well of accolades). Rhoden now serves as Complexions’ co-founding artistic director and resident choreographer.
Richardson said Ailey recognized his mentees were doing something different and encouraged their bold vision. After much discussion in a studio apartment and friends rehearsing together, Complexions was born in 1994. Richardson and Rhoden were told they might not sell out their first performance at Symphony Space in New York City; on the contrary, they sold out all 886 seats for three nights.
“It was pretty groundbreaking,” Richardson said. “People wanted to see all these different genres [of dance] together. We had modern dance and people that dance en pointe, urban, hip hop — we had it all in there. It’s part of who we are as Complexions, part of our mantra is the diversity and showing that diversity of dancers and people. It’s all those things combined. We love to provoke thought and transport the audience when they come to see us.”
Now celebrating their 21st year, Complexions continues to break new ground with the expansion of an office in Atlanta, aiming to bring a unique form of multicultural, inspired dance to broader audiences.
On a phone call from New York, Points North Atlanta stole a few minutes of Richardson’s rare free time (he was also recently asked to serve as the artist-in-residence at University of Southern California’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance) to talk about why Complexions chose the Empire State of the South as a second home for the company’s next 20 years and beyond.
Simply put, friends and family in the area were the original draw. “We have been looking for a home for a while now, because being in New York we’ve been a bit transient,” he said. “People started saying you should really think about the South.”
With that referral, Richardson and Rhoden started researching and planning, and likely won’t slow down even after next month’s grand debut in Gwinnett. The company welcomes aspiring artists to sign up for one of its famous Complexions’ dance intensives Dec. 26 through 30 at the Infinite Energy Forum. Following the intensive, there will be a full performance on Dec. 30 at 7:30 p.m. in the Infinite Energy Theater (formerly the Gwinnett Performing Arts Center) as a part of its 2015-16 season.
“Complexions is coming to Atlanta to be part of the artistic fabric,” Richardson said. “We’re not just coming there one time. We really want to engage with the young people who are dancers and artists that are formidable in their craft. We want to surround ourselves with these people so we can continue to educate, inspire and bring forth the passion that exists for those that want to share their gift with the world.”
Diversity of Dance
Second to actually witnessing a performance, perhaps the contemporary ballet company’s ongoing mission of their “BEYOND 20” campaign is best understood by a glance at its upcoming inaugural season here. Along with various pieces from the company’s history, they plan to unveil the world premiere of “STRUM,” set to Metallica songs alongside works by Johann Sebastian Bach as well as an excerpt inspired by the legendary voice and lyrics of famed jazz singer Jimmy Scott. This year, the company will also launch their annual “Icon Series,” a new piece dedicated to an individual that continually provokes thought for Complexions. The first in the planned series pays tribute to Dr. Maya Angelou in “IMPRINT/MAYA” with a solo performance by Richardson.
“I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Angelou on many occasions throughout my career and she liked my dancing,” Richardson said of the piece’s muse.
“[Her] words are pertinent to the times we live in now and we felt like [this] would be wonderful to do, as a testament to her prowess as a teacher, as a writer, as an educator. We wanted to celebrate her in this way.”
It’s this level of immersive study when translating inspiration into choreographed dance that separates Complexions and its company of perpetual students. Their performances deviate from the dance some of us may do around our kitchens because it goes beyond arbitrary movement for fun – it’s smart, it’s well planned and it’s informed. Yet regardless of one’s previous experience with dance, Richardson aims to engage all audience members by exposing them to a magical environment in the theater. For him, that’s the best part of performing.
“This started as a dream,” Richardson said. “To see that we’ve encouraged and inspired generations of dance throughout the two decades we’ve been in existence has been pretty fantastic. Now we look forward to the other generations of dancers that are coming up and, God willing, we’ll be around to give them information that has been imparted onto us.”
A warm Southern welcome to their new home next month just might rival that groundbreaking opening night 21 years ago in New York.