WHEN your lover is your muse, and his body is your instrument, the personal becomes professional. Choreographer Dwight Rhoden and star dancer Desmond Richardson broke up four years ago, but before that their 18-year romance created not only the nervy, hyper-kinetic contemporary dance company named Complexions -- a company performing Friday through next Sunday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion -- but also its innate stylistic diversity and much of its repertory.
What's more, Rhoden and Richardson are still together as Complexion's directors, and during a recent conversation their closeness proved unmistakable in their body language, the way they often finished each other's sentences and their shared feelings about dance. At a meal between rehearsals, Rhoden did much of the talking, with Richardson adding soft-spoken corrections, specifics and comments that supported and sharpened his partner's statements.
"From 1994, when we started Complexions, until we broke up," Rhoden said, "all my works were centered around him. I was in love with him, in love with his movement, with who he was -- completely enamored. And what a great thing for me: developing my work on someone like that."
All the same, he said, "I still had my wits about me. I wasn't confused or blinded because he was this gorgeous specimen. Rather, I think I was inspired by that, and it still directs my work. Because what we're doing now is building a whole new generation of dancers who are on the floor with him, sharing the stage with him. And he has so much knowledge to pass on, which is different than the knowledge that I have. He's also one of the best coaches you're ever going to see."
Richardson acknowledged that there were difficult moments at the time of the breakup but said that "nothing's changed. I don't feel any different. It took a moment to see what was actually happening, but if anything, I've gained a broader level of respect for the work. It's so mesmerizing to see other dancers translate what I performed for so long.
"This company is an incredibly special place for me -- my home, my baby, the place where I can really investigate movement," he went on. "Because in the other gigs, people hire me to do their thing. And I'm glad to do that because I have the gift of versatility. But when I come back to Complexions, it's open arms: We can do whatever we want."
Those other, wide-ranging freelance gigs have included performances in the Broadway musicals "Fosse," "The Look of Love" and "Movin' Out"; Debbie Allen's dance drama "Soul Possessed" at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; the films "Chicago" and "Across the Universe"; the nonsinging character of Beowulf in "Grendel" for Los Angeles Opera; and the title role in "Othello" (created for him) with San Francisco Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. Most recently, he partnered Kirov Ballet star Diana Vishneva in choreography by Rhoden for her "Beauty in Motion" program at the Orange County Performing Artscenter.
Lessons from Alvin Ailey
MORE than 20 years ago, Richardson was dancing in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Rhoden was in Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal. They met in Toronto, and soon after Rhoden joined the Ailey company. He'd been choreographing since he started dancing, making up routines and participating in contests when he was in high school. And when he found himself dancing alongside Richardson in much of the Ailey repertory ("We always did 'Sinner Man' in 'Revelations' together"), he discovered that they both had what he called "this common love for experimenting and exploring, for thinking outside the box of formal dance training. That's how we came together."
"Alvin was very keen on fostering new voices," Richardson remembered, "and always kept saying, 'Keep going, push it forward, and make sure you're doing it right.' Dwight was creating a trio for three of the dancers in Ailey at that time. I wasn't involved, but I thought that the creative process was very intriguing, and I knew that I needed to be working with him."
The need turned out to be mutual, and personal, and by the time Richardson planned to leave Ailey and join the Frankfurt Ballet, he and Rhoden were not only lovers but also a producing team intent on showcasing themselves and many of their friends in an evening of new work.
"1994 was a hard year for dance," Rhoden recalled. "There were a lot of funding cuts and layoffs. So Desmond and I had this idea of pulling together people who might not ever be on the same stage: dancers from Joffrey, Ailey, even City Ballet, ABT, all those places. There were about 30 dancers, and nobody got paid. I had the bright idea that I would choreograph the whole evening. And I did, starting while we were on tour with Ailey, in hotel rooms, with anybody willing to do a step or two for me."
They had no idea of starting a company, Rhoden said, but when they sold out for three nights, "with lines around the block, we just looked at each other and said that 'We've got the ingredients here for something really special.' "
Complexions began touring the next year but didn't become a full-time company until 2001. It now has what Rhoden calls a nucleus of 14 dancers based in New York, a 15-member board and an annual budget he estimates at $2.2 million. "It's still up and down," he observed, "because you know how dance companies are -- it's hard. But right now we have a lot of individual and corporate support."
"And this year is actually a big one for us in terms of grants," Richardson added.
From the first, Rhoden and Richardson conceived Complexions as a contemporary ballet company, although Rhoden acknowledges that "when we started, many people thought they were going to see an Alvin Ailey-style concert and didn't realize that women dance on pointe in most of my work."
The misconception came partly from the founders' reputation as Ailey dancers, but race also played a part. "We are of color, but we use the vernacular of classicism and modern movement," Richardson said carefully, clearly impatient with the whole subject. "I totally hear what [choreographers] Bill T. Jones and Garth Fagan say about 'black dance.' You don't ask people in New York City Ballet how it feels being a white dancer. It's not even a question."
"We're not denying that part of what we are," Rhoden said. "In the program that you're going to see [at the Pavilion], you'll hear some Odetta and Nina Simone but also Chopin. Everything that's ever been a part of us is part of what we do. My work is as diverse and our dancers are as versatile as we can get. Complexions defies classification because the dancers all have a strong classical foundation -- but only to break outside of that and defy the form, to use it as a mechanism to express. We're not trying to do anything but express."
The joy of living
RHODEN will be 45 this year and is in a relationship. Richardson just turned 39 and said he's "too busy" for one. But he knows his dancing days are numbered and can accept that. "I absolutely love dance," he declared, "and I bring my individuality and humanity to the art, which is Desmond. I bring me there. So when I stop, I'll be OK, really OK. Because I've got a brain and I know that I've done all that I can do to push it and go forward and help others to find new ways -- just to go for it and really love it."
Choreographers ordinarily have a longer career span than their dancers, but Rhoden too has reasons to count the days: In 2005, he suffered a massive heart attack at the Laguna Dance Festival and received emergency surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
"I was born with a valve problem, but it never really flared up," he said. "And I have to say that at the time the company was very busy, my freelance schedule was very busy, I was working way too hard -- I might be back there again already -- and maybe a little excessive in terms of my lifestyle habits. Just kind of overdoing it."
And he smoked -- still does, in fact, as Richardson reminded him while he told this story. The attack began with what Rhoden misinterpreted as flu symptoms, but before long he couldn't breathe and "everything started to shut down." After he got to Cedars-Sinai, his family was called because "they didn't know if I was going to make it beyond 48 hours, my heart was that bad." He even lost the ability to speak for a time.
His recovery made him appreciate his friends more, Rhoden said, "and made me try to get rid of the junk in my life as soon as it surfaces. I'm trying to live as cleanly, freely and joyfully as I can."
Richardson nodded in agreement and praised Rhoden for "delegating now, especially as the company's infrastructure has gotten better. There have been a lot of changes."
What hasn't changed (besides Rhoden's smoking) is the men's feelings for each other and the pumped-up energy of Complexions' style. "As a choreographer, I always look for possibilities," Rhoden explained. "I look for what I can do to honor what dancers have inside of them and bring that out. It's not just about a physical capability.
"One thing that I want people to understand about my work is that I create at the pulse of the world we live in. So the work can be very dense and thick and complex -- and that is a deliberate way that I compose. It's hard sometimes for people to take it all in at one sitting. But who says that you should see a dance piece only once?"
Segal, formerly The Times' dance critic, is a freelance arts writer who also teaches dance history at USC.
Get breaking stories straight from Hollywood, covering film, television, music and more.