When I signed my first professional contract with Eugene Ballet, one of the last things I anticipated was the opportunity to dance beside a member of American Ballet Theatre. Flash forward to the start of our spring season this year, and suddenly I'm chatting in the hallway and rehearsing the Cinderella fairy variations next to luminous ABT corps member Rachel Richardson. When ABT announced it was canceling live performances for the 2020–21 season, Richardson traveled back home to Eugene, Oregon, to be with her family—and this spring joined the company as a guest artist.
Growing up, Richardson trained locally in Eugene before moving to The Rock School for Dance Education's year-round program in Philadelphia. After securing a spot in the ABT Studio Company in 2013, she was promoted to corps de ballet in 2015. This unconventional year marks her sixth season with the main company.
After having the privilege of dancing with her this spring, I sat down with Richardson to discuss her recent guesting experience, how the pandemic has helped her grow and her advice for young dancers.
When you heard that ABT had to cancel its 2020–21 season performances, did you make any plans off the bat?
I definitely did not make any plans, mostly because we all thought this was going to be more of a short-term thing. It all felt very gradual, and there was almost never a significant shift all at once. It was a good lesson in taking things day by day and asking, "What would be fun or useful to do today?" And before you know it, a year has gone by!
Did many other ABT dancers guest with outside companies?
Yes. A lot of the international dancers found companies to guest with in their home countries or cities. I think seeing them and a few other colleagues dancing with local organizations helped spark the idea to do it myself. I've loved seeing dancers connect more with their communities.
Had you had much of a connection with Eugene Ballet?
Yes, I actually trained at the Eugene Ballet Academy, and when I came home after my time at The Rock School I took open classes here. I also danced in some company productions—I was a flamingo in their Alice in Wonderland in 2011. So I knew the dancers, and one of the ballet masters had coached me for Youth America Grand Prix that year. Three of the current principals were apprentices back then! It's been really fun to feel like I've grown up with the company.
Did you enjoy your time here as a guest artist?
I loved it! One of my favorite things, and what I've missed the most during the pandemic, was having peers to dance with and even just chat with in the hallways. To feel part of a community is truly valuable. In rehearsals, it felt so good to be among other people who were supporting each other. The company's new building, obviously, was amazing too.
ABT has about five times as many dancers as EB. What was it like dancing for a smaller company?
My dad actually asked me the same question! It's helpful and supportive to be reminded that what we're all doing is so much the same. It may seem like New York and Eugene are different in many ways, but we have so much in common. I was super impressed with everyone's talent and ability, the professionalism, and the way the company was run. When you're in two places where the environment is amazing, the amount of company dancers or any other variables seem to matter less.
While you were here you performed the Fairy Godmother variation from Cinderella and were also in the premiere of Suzanne Haag's Conduct, recorded for our upcoming virtual program (available here May 14–21). What was it like dancing for the camera?
During the pandemic I'd filmed one other piece for ABT Incubator, which recently came out. But that was my only other main experience with filming. I felt comfortable, and it felt normal—but in the sense that it's what's happening during the pandemic. I'm sure it's different for everyone, but I genuinely forgot the camera was there. It's funny, because technically you want to engage with the audience, so I'm sure there's an art to being filmed for dance. I'll have to keep that in mind for next time.
How has the pandemic changed you as a dancer?
Actually, I'm really grateful for this—it's widened the way I think about myself. Before the pandemic, I saw my life more linearly, and where I fit in the dance community felt smaller. But suddenly that line is gone, so I'm redeveloping the way I think of myself, and it's in a much more equal sense. Everyone's unique; you aren't comparable to anyone else.
Richardson and Antonio Lopez in rehearsal for Suzanne Haag's Conduct .
Courtesy Eugene Ballet
Do you have any advice for younger dancers or those new to company life?
It's so hard for me to know what professional life will even be like in, say, 10 years. Except that I think your character matters a lot. One of the things you realize is so much of your life is based on your interactions with others, even in terms of the opportunities you get. It's important to be just as focused on developing your character and who you are as a person as it is to develop your technique and artistry.
Also, dance is really self-focused, so it takes active effort to think outside of yourself. Find ways to give back and be aware of how you can be helping. Be willing to look outside of yourself and to add value to others. Admire and appreciate the beautiful dancers around you and spend time recognizing the good.
Any parting thoughts?
It's a big, wide world, and there's a lot to learn! Trust yourself. Everyone can listen to their own intuition and inspired ideas. The more I learn, the less I want to give advice, and the more I want my advice to be "I think you know the answer if you really listen to yourself."