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. …