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Desmond Richardson: dares to do it all, from concert dance and ballet to film and Broadway.

On a bright September afternoon in 2002, Desmond Richardson paused momentarily before executing an exquisite triple pirouette, his sleek, muscled body glistening in the light flooding the New 42nd Street Studios in Manhattan. Leaving onlookers awestruck, he took off in a series of blazing leaps across the room, bringing the sequence to a rousing close with rapid-fire bourrees and a big, radiant smile. Such a daunting technical challenge was not new to the 34-year-old dancer, who was rehearsing with the modern dance company Complexions, which he co-founded with his partner Dwight Rhoden in 1994.

Alternating between ballet, modern dance, Broadway, television, and film, Richardson, whose chiseled good looks are framed by short dreadlocks, wins kudos wherever his interests lead him. Nothing attests to his versatility like his resume. He started his career with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1987, shifted to Ballett Frankfurt in 1994, and in 1997 became American Ballet Theatre's first black principal dancer. He left to star in the hit show Fosse on Broadway, for which he won a Tony Award nomination in 1999 for Best Featured Actor in a Musical.

As if all this were not enough, he can be seen in the new film Chicago, which co-stars actors Richard Gere and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and on Broadway in the musical The Look of Love, choreographed by Ann Reinking (tentatively slated for spring 2003). He also appears in the Patrick Swayze film Without a Word, which is due out later in 2003. Like his idol Nureyev, Richardson thrives on mastering new styles and has a mesmerizing theatrical presence.

Richardson doesn't take advantage of being a star. Along with every other dancer at that September rehearsal, he was concentrating on getting the dance's phrasing and tone right. Because he is so familiar with Rhoden's style--a combination of ballet, modern, and jazz dance--he occasionally coaches his Complexions colleagues, enjoying the chance to give artistic advice. The company was preparing for a performance in Los Angeles and a tour of the United States. Richardson toured with Complexions until early December; rehearsals for The Look of Love started later in the month.

Since Richardson has taken voice lessons for six years, he was elated about finally making his Broadway singing debut in the musical named for the well-known Burt Bacharach song. Still, when he got to the audition, he felt frightened. "I began to tense up," he confessed, "and worry about whether I would do it right. But I talked myself into relaxing, because I do love to sing." In fact, he sang his audition numbers well enough to be hired on the spot.

"Desmond is such an incredible talent," said Reinking, who oversaw the audition, "that I couldn't imagine the show without him." He also sings in the film Chicago.

Richardson's courage, energy, and daring have won him an honored place in the dance world. In the last few years, many superb male dancers have come to the fore, but Richardson's technique and expressiveness stand out--enough for even his colleagues to envy him.

"When we danced together in Nacho Duato's Remanso at ABT," Vladimir Malakhov said, "Desmond made everything look so easy. I wished I could be like him."

Richardson's wide-ranging talents have attracted choreographers as diverse as George Faison, Ulysses Dove, Garth Fagan, John Butler, William Forsythe, and Lar Lubovitch. When Richardson was a principal dancer with ABT, Lubovitch choreographed the role of Othello for him.

"Instinctively, Desmond conveys poetry in movement," Lubovitch said. "Then there's his superb technique. As a dance linguist, he speaks eloquently in all styles. Nothing he performs is flat or uninflected." The PBS film of Richardson dancing in the San Francisco Ballet's production of Lubovitch's Othello is scheduled to air in June on public television stations nationwide as part of the Great Performances anniversary celebration.

Richardson blossomed early. As a child he started dancing at home in Queens, New York. "My family likes to party," he said. "They're from the South and the Caribbean. Everybody dances in my house--salsa, reggae, and soul. We watch who can do the newest step. My mother acts as a catalyst. She knows how to bring the party up, and when we dance, the feeling comes from inside and infiltrates you." He also did break dancing on the street as a child. "For both ballet and break dancing," he said, "you have to have exquisite control of your weight and your center. And you have to move with clarity and force at the same time."

But until Richardson discovered Great Performances on PBS, he didn't have any concept of professional dance. "Then I fell in love with every aspect of it--the theater, the music, the costumes, the sets," he remembers. "They became a part of me." Since his parents couldn't afford dance classes, Richardson auditioned for Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan and earned a place as a freshman. Within a year he had a scholarship to continue his studies at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. In 1986, Ailey asked Richardson to join the company.

From the beginning, Richardson maintained a professional life outside of concert dance. In 1988, he danced in Michael Jackson's video Bad, and since then Richardson has performed in other videos and appeared with tours of En Vogue, Aretha Franklin, Prince, and Madonna.

"I fill myself up with as many things as possible," he explained. "I like works that are completely out of the ordinary. Alvin taught me the importance of versatility. He said: `If you can sing, you have to sing; if you can act, act. You'll bring all that to the stage, and it's so very relevant.'"

From Forsythe, Richardson learned improvisational technique. "Billy made me see how I make decisions," he said, "and how and where movements originate in my body and mind."

Ballet taught him refinement, clarity, and efficiency. "Ballet dancers," he said, "are the most efficient movers. They learn to put their energy in the right place."

In Europe, he discovered that artists use their skills quite differently from the way they do in the United States. "There, a performance is all about the work," he said. "It's not about the performers. The dancers invite you into what they're doing; it's not in-your-face. Unfortunately; in the United States, everything has to be `Pow! Right now!'"

Richardson's power derives instead from an inner calm that he has been developing for some time. "The best thing I've learned in recent years is to be calmer," he said. "I've always had `go-for-broke' energy," he said, "but I temper it and am clearer in my delivery. I used to put too much energy in too many places. I'm more familiar with the territory and have more confidence now. I listen to my inner voice say, `Relax here, breathe here,' and always `Enjoy yourself.'"

Now that Richardson has broken into film and established himself on Broadway, does he see himself moving away from ballet and modern dance? His face gave away his answer. "I love doing film," he confirmed. "You can get across to an audience much more quickly and directly than you can in a dance performance. I admire Baryshnikov in the film White Nights, where he could be true to himself as both a dancer and actor. That's the kind of project I'd go for. And I love the electricity of a Broadway show. But I am a concert dancer first. And right now that's where I can be most expressive--and, I hope, be a model to young people."

Valerie Gladstone also writes for The New York Times, Elle, and Town and Country. She co-authored the book Balanchine's Mozartiana: The Making of a Masterpiece.
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Title Annotation:Biography
Author:Gladstone, Valerie
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2003
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