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On November 5, Dance Magazine will (for the 50th time!) present its annual awards to dance artists who have made a major contribution to our field. This year’s recipients are Desmond Richardson, Wendy Whelan, Bettie de Jong, and Bebe Neuwirth. Here we single out some of their extraordinary accomplishments. To get more information about this year’s event, turn to page 41. For a roster of past honorees and video clips from last year’s ceremony, visit www.dancemagazine.com.
His sculpted body and dramatic presence are instantly identifiable. His rippling torso, grounded strength, and extreme extensions speak to his mastery of an array of dance forms. And yet, what comes through most of all is the expressiveness of every reach, every back arch, every leap. He seems to be speaking to each audience member personally. A performer of great strength, flexibility, and curiosity, Desmond Richardson is one of the most popular guest dancers worldwide today.
As a teenager Richardson attended the LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts and, at the same time, studied at The Ailey School on scholarship. Alvin Ailey’s mentorship shaped Richardson’s career from his early days as a student. Richardson joined Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1987 and spent eight years dancing in works by Ailey, Limón, and Elisa Monte among others. Ulysses Dove created an extremely demanding role in his sexually charged Episodes for the young dancer. Richardson won a Bessie Award in 1991 for his performance of John Butler’s After Eden. When he left the Ailey company, he worked briefly with William Forsythe at Ballett Frankfurt, and it was there that he broadened his contemporary vocabulary and improvisation ability.
In 1997 he became the first black principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, creating the title role in Lar Lubovitch’s Othello. Other highlights of his time at ABT included his dancing in Nacho Duato’s haunting Remanso and his foray into deliciously wicked roles such as Tybalt and Carabosse. He has also performed as a guest artist with the Swedish Opera Ballet, Washington Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, and La Scala Ballet. His recent Beowulf stole the show in Julie Taymor’s production of Grendel at the L.A. Opera, and his stints in musical theater have earned him a Tony nomination for his performance in Fosse. He has also played the role of Tony in Movin’ Out and appeared in the films Chicago and Across the Universe. He has danced in various productions with Michael Jackson, Prince, Aretha Franklin, and Madonna.
Richardson, 37, co-founded Complexions Contemporary Ballet in 1994 with fellow Ailey dancer Dwight Rhoden. As its star performer, he devours and completely internalizes Rhoden’s choreography. The company, which tours internationally, operates under a mission of diversity, and its movement vocabulary is influenced by Richardson’s fusion of styles. Complexions has nurtured many dancers, emphasizing versatility, physicality, and glamour.
As a model for young dancers, Richardson has broken through to places in the dance world not known for their openness to African Americans. He remains highly invested in giving back to his community, to the youth who do not have the opportunities he had. Recently he directed and choreographed New York City’s All Stars Project kids in Homeland Security: Bringing Dr. King Up to Date.
As an 11-year-old, Richardson watched Rudolph Nureyev in La Scala’s Le Corsaire on PBS in awe. As it happens, the adult Richardson possesses a similar mix of high drama, raw energy, and star quality that made Nureyev so captivating to watch, and he has since graced the very stage upon which Nureyev gave that performance—as well as hundreds of other stages.
In summing up his career, Ailey’s artistic director Judith Jamison says, “He’s stretching what it means to be a dancer.” —Lori Ortiz
Wendy Whelan was a 21st-century ballerina even when she began her career as a teenager with New York City Ballet in the 20th century. With her aerodynamically streamlined body, she gives classical ballet vocabulary a startlingly fresh and fascinating geometric context. Always musical, intelligent, and fluid, she has continued to evolve the sublime qualities of her performance.
Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, she began dancing at the age of 3, when even her gym teacher mom couldn’t contain her energy. She studied with the Louisville Ballet Academy and eventually was offered a full-time scholarship at the School of American Ballet. Even though Balanchine died the day of her first SAB workshop performance in 1983, she absorbed the company’s aesthetic with a natural born predilection. She joined NYCB in 1986 and rose to the rank of principal dancer in 1991.
Quickly proving herself in the “leotard” repertoire—ballets like Stravinsky Violin Concerto and The Four Temperaments—she moved on to shine in works that require crystalline classical technique. Ballerina roles in Swan Lake, Allegro Brillante, Concerto Barocco, and the second movement of Symphony in C have shown her superior artistry built on a foundation of rock-solid craftsmanship. She injects daring abandon into ballets like Walpurgisnacht Ballet and the gypsy movement of Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet. As she has matured, she has embraced a marvelous lyricism as the Sleepwalker in La Sonnambula and in ballets like Chaconne, Ballade, and Liebeslieder Walzer.
NYCB artistic director Peter Martins has utilized her gifts to create and re-create roles in Ash, Barber Violin Concerto, and Fearful Symmetries.
Versatility has become her calling card. How many ballerinas can breeze through the technical obstacle course of Theme and Variations and then switch to the angular pas de deux of Agon in the same evening?
Jerome Robbins adored her and let her loose in Opus 19/The Dreamer, Dances at a Gathering, In the Night, In Memory Of…, and In G Major. Anyone who has seen her as the Novice in The Cage remembers her portrayal as both mesmerizing and scary.
When Christopher Wheeldon began choreographing for New York City Ballet, Whelan became his primary muse. Together with Jock Soto, they ushered in a new era of choreography for the company. In ballets like Polyphonia, Liturgy, Morphoses, and After the Rain, Whelan holds the stage as the audience holds its collective breath. How anyone can move so acrobatically and artistically seems miraculous—from her skimming bourreés to her seamless negotiation of seemingly impossible partnering moves.
Whelan is a role model for many young dancers because she loves the work ethic and the process of dancing—the repetition of rehearsals, the constant honing of steps and port de bras, the relentless quest for individual phrasing. Dancing flows from her as naturally as a stream flowing into a river. And that’s why we love her so much; the flow comes from her talent, drive, and desire.
On the roster of superior New York City Ballet ballerinas, Wendy Whelan has clearly secured her place in history. —Joseph Carman
Bettie de Jong
Ever since 1962, Bettie de Jong has been an indispensable part of the Paul Taylor Dance Company—first as a dancer, then, after her retirement in 1985, as rehearsal director. If the position of rehearsal director strikes you as merely honorific or innocuous, your mind will be changed by the end of a Taylor program. Any performance by this company will open your eyes to the significant, even crucial, contribution de Jong has made and continues to make to one of America’s greatest dance institutions. She has served for more than two decades as Taylor’s memory, his ballast, and, one suspects, his artistic conscience.
No choreographer has kept older dances alive or revived forgotten works with the élan displayed by Taylor. It has been de Jong’s duty, as well as calling, to ensure that classics like Esplanade, Aureole, From Sea to Shining Sea, and rarities like Piece Period move with the spirit and musicality that they radiated at their creation. In modern dance circles, the making of new works versus the retention of vintage repertoire is a topic for passionate discussion that never seems to go away. However, with Taylor, there’s no argument. You can have both. A Taylor dance that glowed 40 years ago retains its wondrous, shimmering appeal.
De Jong performed in many of these pieces the first time around. She was one of the more charismatic members of Taylor’s team as well as the choreographer’s favored partner. There is a photo of the dancer standing with Taylor in front of London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre and one can’t help but notice how she complements him physically. In repose, her long legs, extended torso, and chiseled features are striking and beautiful. In that face one sees glimmers of the seething intelligence and calculated mischief de Jong displayed during her years on the stage.
She was the prototype of the tall, imposing women Taylor prefers in roles that demand monumentality enrobed in antic, savage wit. If you saw de Jong’s portayal of Big Bertha—that mechanical, county-fair doll who drives a stereotypical American family to tragic self-knowledge—you have not forgotten it. She evoked movement poetry in “the conversation” section of Esplanade. Later, Taylor cast de Jong as the sadistic rehearsal mistress, garbed in Russian silk blouse and outsized headgear, in Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal). It was the last major role she originated; has ever a dancer been memorialized so prophetically by her choreographer?
In his autobiography, Private Domain, Taylor recalls de Jong as “a lovely reed dancing.” Of Dutch stock, she was born in Sumatra, moved to Holland at 14, danced with the Netherlands Pantomime Company, and came to New York to study at the Martha Graham school. She auditioned for Taylor, and she recalls that he forgot to tell her she was accepted until she failed to show up at rehearsal.
Since then, de Jong has never been away from PTDC. In rehearsals, her eyes remain fixed on the dancers, her manner is strictly no-nonsense, although she learned decades ago that her work is, fundamentally, a collaboration with the performers. During a performance, de Jong doesn’t hover in the wings. She sits out front with the audience. She views the work from our perspective. This, after all, is entertainment.
Let Taylor provide the ultimate compliment about his Bet: “Mostly I love her,” he writes, “but sometimes I don’t. Once in a while both these feelings are like a furry noose which slowly tightens around my neck, but I’m always grateful that she is with us.” So are we. —Allan Ulrich
With her long legs, dark mane, and smooth sense of rhythm, Bebe Neuwirth has all the classic vamp’s essential equipment. In another era, choreographers would have flung themselves—and their best roles—on her, showcasing the savoir faire that makes Neuwirth a Broadway original. But with few new dance-rich musicals, it’s no surprise that Neuwirth has earned her kudos in revivals of some of the best ever created, particularly by Fosse.
She would have been catnip to him, and luckily she had an opportunity as a relative newcomer to work with him on a number he was called in to tweak in the Peter Gennaro–choreographed 1982 revival of Little Me. “Bob Fosse recommended me as a replacement in Dancin’,” she says, setting her on a path that eventually would lead to the lethal Velma—insouciant murderess and epitome of anything goes ’20s moxie—in the long-running revival of Chicago. That performance earned her a Tony, her second. And to anyone watching her knock off “All That Jazz” in expert Fosse style—angular, sexy, and in charge—the moves seemed to fit like a black velvet glove. She also performed Fosse’s choreography in Sweet Charity, Damn Yankees, and Fosse.
The connection was no coincidence. Neuwirth, 48, fell in love with Fosse’s choreography at 13, when she saw Pippin. “It resonated so deeply for me,” she says. “I made a profound decision that I was going to dance on Broadway in this guy’s choreography. I had no idea what I was saying. There are plenty of choreographers I’d really stink at, but as dancers we know things physically. I just knew what I felt.”
But Neuwirth’s first love was ballet, which she began studying at 5 in Princeton, New Jersey, at the Princeton Ballet Society, run by Audrey Estee. Neuwirth credits those years to her dance success. Today she still takes class—“Everyone has to take ballet class every day,” she says—and her long, luscious line and erect carriage reveal her training. “Dancers who are trained in ballet have an easier time with Fosse’s style,” she told Dance Magazine (“Vital Signs,” Jan.). “It has to do with the elegance and the fact that it’s so pulled up.”
She danced as a teenager with Princeton Ballet, performing roles in The Nutcracker and Coppélia, but applied to Juilliard’s dance program with an eye to a career in musical theater. She lasted a year (1976–1977), then dropped out to take classes around the city and audition. She won the role of Lois and understudied the roles of Sheila and Cassie in the international tour of A Chorus Line when she was 19, and eventually ended up as Sheila on Broadway. Then came Little Me, and her Fosse dream came true.
Despite her Tonys, the American public probably knows Neuwirth best as psychiatrist Dr. Lilith Sternin, a role she established in the popular TV series Cheers, and which she later repeated in its spin-off, Frasier. Her movie credits are too numerous to list, but she has veered from wry, elegant dramas like the recent Le Divorce to down-and-out slapstick like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.
There have been disappointments, as happens in any artist’s career. Although she virtually owned the role of Velma in Chicago, she didn’t appear in the film version. And despite a long and distinguished career on Broadway, no one has yet written a show especially for her. But she has piled on success after success without losing the style and allure that makes her a dancer extraordinaire. “We know things instinctively about ourselves,” she says. “As dancers, we need to pay attention to what resonates—which teachers, which choreographers—and be true to our particular gifts. Deep down inside there’s a clarity and a focus and a knowledge of what my particular gift is.” —Hilary Ostlere