Studio 1 in Kenyon Hall felt especially alive. Dancers from the Vassar Repertory Dance Theatre (VRDT) crowded the ballet barre on three sides of the room, with five more barres standing in the center. After a particularly strenuous combination, the dancers released their arms from above their heads in unison and exhaled.
The teacher was Desmond Richardson, a renowned contemporary dancer and choreographer. His experience ranges from dancing at the American Ballet Theatre and Broadway to forming his own dance company, Complexions. On Oct. 27, he gave a masterclass in anticipation of officially joining Vassar’s dance faculty next semester. Richardson taught the class with unbounded energy. “Attack!” he yelled, snapping his fingers. Just watching him made me fix my posture.
Chair of the Dance Department, Miriam Mahdaviani, described the process of considering Richardson for a faculty position. “Two dancers he worked with in the past, Steve Rooks and John Meehan, are now faculty members in Vassar’s Dance department. When we were talking about new faculty for the department at a faculty meeting earlier this year, Desmond’s name came up and we all loved the idea,” She explained. On Wednesday, Richardson’s visit served as his introduction to the 37 dancers that make up VRDT.
Mahdaviani is looking forward to the wisdom Richardson will bring to the dance department and VRDT students. Along with making headlines for being the first Black principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, Richardson has developed his own dance aesthetic, which he calls “Nique,” short for technique. As Mahdaviani explained, “This aesthetic is based on a ballet foundation but adds a more contemporary movement style.”
Bridging the gap between contemporary and classical dance is something Richardson is passionate about, which is evident in his teaching. “We started with a barre, but it included contractions and parallel positions,” said Emily Tieu ’24, a dancer for VRDT. Richardson told the students to flex their feet, making balanced yet irregular movements, reaching to the floor then to the ceiling. He asked the pianist for bass cords, instead of the usual flowery ballet melodies played during floor work. The room gasped in amazement as he reached one leg into the air, doing a split perpendicular to the ground.
“He commanded the room with prima dancer presence, however, I could see by the way he corrected the students that he was moved by kindness and care for his dancers,” Tieu shared.
In his lecture after class, Richardson described the transformative impact his own dance teachers had on him. He explained how the discipline and hard work demanded of him elevated his dancing, allowing him to join the prestigious Alvin Ailey company at 19. It was one of these teachers who once asked him, “Do you know your gifts?” Learning from this moment, Richardson advised the group, “Let go of self doubt.”
As a teacher, Richardson likes to see passion first, then technique. During the class, he periodically revealed pieces of wisdom. “The music is in you!” he shouted, laying himself on the piano. “Let your technique liberate you,” he said after correcting a dancer’s foot at the barre. “You have to disarm your audience. We are in the business of transporting souls.”
As a director, Richardson hopes that with his own dance company, Complexions, he can continue to merge the worlds of contemporary and classical dance techniques. In his talk, he emphasized the message that “Dance is dance is dance,” no matter who is performing, or the style of their movements. This is a message that Complexions strives to communicate through a diverse company, including a mix of people and dance methods.
With all his energy and experience, Richardson will teach two classes at Vassar next semester. Nique Contemporary Dance will focus on his Nique dance technique and Intermediate Ballet, which he will co-teach with Miriam Mahdaviani. Richardson will also work with VRDT to develop a new piece of choreography for their Spring 2022 concert.
VRDT’s Fall performances will be held on Nov. 18, 19, and 20. “37 Vassar students will be dancing in all three shows. These are the company’s first in-person performances in 20 months,” Mahdaviani shared. Dance faculty such as Lisa Harvie, Miriam Mahdaviani, Steve Rooks, and Leslie Sachs will contribute new creations to the showcase. Performances will be held at the Frances Daly Fergusson Dance Theater at 7 p.m.
We’ll have to wait until the Spring to see our peers perform Richardson’s work. Or, as he would put it, for dance to transport our souls. But for now, it doesn’t matter whether you’re planning on taking one of Richardson’s classes next semester, dancing by yourself in your dorm room, or performing a solo at the Metropolitan Opera; what matters is that you move. After all, dance is dance is dance.