Contemporary ballet

Complexions Contemporary Ballet’s Tatiana Melendez proves there’s no one way to a career in ballet

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JTell anyone about rising contemporary ballerina Tatiana Melendez, and one word is sure to come up time and time again: “Fierce.” And fair enough, that’s a perfectly apt way to describe the 20-year-old’s stage presence, technical prowess and determination to succeed. But don’t make the mistake of assuming ferocity is Melendez’s only (or even most notable) quality. At the heart of her dance is a beautiful versatility. She is as comfortable carving clean classic lines as she is boldly unbalancing herself.

“A selfish choreographer that I am, I want Tatiana to stay with Complexions forever,” says her boss Dwight Rhoden, co-artistic director and resident choreographer of Complexions Contemporary Ballet. “She has a theatricality in her: when the music starts, she is swept away.” Not too shabby for someone who thought just a few years ago that maybe ballet wasn’t for her.

Training grounds

Melendez was born and raised in Tampa, Florida, where she danced from the age of 4 in a small hobby studio. “I’ve done everything from ballet to contemporary, from jazz to acro,” Melendez says. At age 8, she moved on to All American Dance Factory and Classical Ballet School, studying and competing in the standard children’s fare of jazz, acro, contemporary, and hip hop. Still, Melendez found herself drawn to the ballet’s clear structure. “My first ballet competition was the Youth America Grand Prix in 2011,” she recalls. “I did it on the flat because it was my first year on pointe.” In no time, she’s become a top-five regular at ADC | IBC, World Ballet Competition, YAGP and New York City Dance Alliance.

Melendez says there wasn’t a single lightbulb moment that made her realize ballet was her dream. But that doesn’t mean the ballet world didn’t notice her. In 2015, Ballet West Academy had already offered 15-year-old Tatiana admission to its year-round program when she was spotted at ADC | IBC by Houston Ballet II ballet master Claudio Muñoz, who was judging. “My eyes went straight to Tatiana, because her jumps and turns had phenomenal energy,” Muñoz recalled. This “raw and incredible talent” earned Melendez a full scholarship to the professional program at Houston Ballet Academy. After taking time to consider the Houston Ballet rep (contemporary), his connection to Muñoz (strong and encouraging), and the testimonials from friends about the year-round program (dazzling), Melendez moved into student housing.

Jayme Thornton

In Houston, Melendez didn’t miss out on stage time. She was thrown into Nutcracker and Stanton Welch Cinderella, in addition to all his academic performance. She was also one of the few academy dancers chosen by company member Oliver Halkowich for his contemporary piece. full circle.

Between shows, she worked hard. “In my competition studio, we never had pas de deux classes or full pointes,” Melendez explains. “The grueling academy schedule really honed my technique.” Muñoz says that in just two years, Melendez transformed her own dance: “Tatiana is the most incredible hard worker I have ever seen. She has become a beautiful swan, with a classic heart and a contemporary soul.

Tatiana Melendez, wearing a denim skirt and striped tank top, sits cross-legged on a white box and smiles at the camera.
Jayme Thornton

Going pro, with downsides

After graduating, Melendez headed to Fort Worth, where she had landed an intern contract with the Texas Ballet Theater. It was a difficult transition. “I went from training all day to a morning class followed by standing sideways for hours of rehearsal,” she says. Melendez’s gifts were far from being ignored, however. As a trainee, she danced in the body of productions like Swan Lake and The beauty and the Beast, was one of six female leads in the world premiere of Ben Stevenson Pieces of Martinu, and has conducted several performances of Nutcracker like Claire.

At the end of the season, however, Melendez’s worst nightmare came true. Her contract was not renewed as, at 5′ 1″, she was considered too short for the company. “My height has always been an insecurity,” Melendez says. “Once, during a ballet competition, someone told me coming off the stage that I would never make it because I was ‘not made for dancing.’ ”

Three women on stage, dressed in ornate black leotards, strike a spiked pose under a red spotlight.

Left to right: Candy Tong, Melendez and Eriko Sugimura in Dwight Rhoden’s Love rocks. Justin Chao, Courtesy Complexions Contemporary Ballet

Disappointed, Melendez threw herself into auditioning for classical companies – only to be told again and again that while her technique was excellent, her height was a no-start. “Being told ‘no’ so many times was really discouraging, because I can’t change my size,” she says. Melendez had even begun convincing herself to take a year off from dancing when she decided at the last minute to attend Complexions’ open call in New York. “The complexion was always a dream in my head, but I never thought it would be achievable – it wasn’t even on my list of places to audition,” she recalled.

Take the plane

Thus began what Melendez calls the hardest and happiest two days of his life. More than 400 dancers showed up for Complexions’ open call in April 2018, but after technique lessons and “the fastest I’ve had to learn choreography,” Melendez made it through to the final cut. By the end of the two nonstop days, she was convinced that Rhoden’s bold, athletic contemporary movement was her true calling, but still assumed she wouldn’t get the job.

She didn’t have to worry. As Complexions co-founder and co-artistic director Desmond Richardson says, “Tatiana made her presence clear from the moment she walked through the door. I remember Dwight and I were like, “Wow, she’s really something.” His professionalism, his innate sense of musicality and his sheer strength made me quite nostalgic. Rhoden adds, “What made Tatiana stand out was her fearlessness. She applied corrections, dynamics and ideas immediately during the audition. She knows how to cross the t’s and dot the i’s.

On a dark stage, a dancer in black shorts lifts a leaping dancer into the air.

Simon Plant and Melendez play Dwight Rhoden WAKE UP. Stephen Pisano, Courtesy Complexions Contemporary Ballet

Melendez says joining Complexions was a full 180, in the best possible way. Because the company is made up of just 17 dancers, she and other new members were immediately thrown into learning the repertoire, performing across the country and overseas and collaborating with Rhoden in the studio. “Working with Dwight one-on-one is amazing,” she says. “Performing choreography actually done on you, using your strengths, is so satisfying. Especially in this book called wake up it’s about social justice issues, I really had to dig deep and bring out a different dancer than myself.

Although she sometimes felt homesick for the classics, Melendez believes dancing with Complexions allows her to dance as a fully mature version of herself. “Even though Clara was a fun role, and even though I love watching classical ballet, I don’t always want to be cast as a little girl,” she explains.

After a season and a half of whirlwind touring (so far in New Zealand, Europe and across the US) and an intense creative process, Melendez’s new routine with Complexions has sadly been put on hiatus at coronavirus era. At home in Tampa with her family, she used this break to pursue her other creative passions, drawing and photography, and to teach the representative of Complexions as part of the company’s virtual offerings. Melendez looks forward to returning to work with Complexions and continuing to perform with classical companies, such as Roma City Ballet in Italy. “Growing up, I thought I had to focus only on ballet or just contemporary if I wanted to be good,” she says. “Now I see that having kept my feet in both worlds will help me dance as many roles as possible for as many choreographers as possible to the maximum of my ability, which is all I’ve ever wanted to do. ” We would like to see someone try to stop him.