Complexions Contemporary Ballet's Tatiana Melendez Proves There's No One Way to Have a Ballet Career

September 22, 2020

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Talk to anyone about rising contemporary ballerina Tatiana Melendez, and one word is bound to come up repeatedly: “Fierce.” And fair enough, that’s a perfectly apt way to describe the 20-year-old’s stage presence, her technical prowess and her determination to succeed. But don’t make the mistake of assuming that fierceness is Melendez’s only (or even her most noteworthy) quality. At the core of her dancing is a beautiful versatility. She’s just as much at ease when etching pure classical lines as she is when boldly throwing herself off-balance.

“Selfish choreographer that I am, I want Tatiana to stay with Complexions for all time,” says her boss Dwight Rhoden, Complexions Contemporary Ballet‘s co-artistic director and resident choreographer. “She has a theatricality about her: When the music comes on, she gets 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 age 4 at a small recreational studio. “I did everything from ballet to contemporary, jazz to acro,” says Melendez. At 8, she switched to All American Dance Factory and Classical Ballet School, studying and competing in the standard comp-kid fare of jazz, acro, contemporary and hip hop. Yet Melendez found herself drawn to ballet’s clear structure. “My first ballet competition was Youth America Grand Prix in 2011,” she remembers. “I did it on flat because that was my first year on pointe.” Before long, she became a regular in the top five at ADC|IBC, World Ballet Competition, YAGP and New York City Dance Alliance.

Melendez says there wasn’t any one lightbulb moment that made her realize ballet was her dream. But that doesn’t mean the ballet world wasn’t taking notice of her. In 2015, the Ballet West Academy had already offered 15-year-old Tatiana admission to their year-round program when she was spotted at ADC|IBC by Houston Ballet II’s ballet master Claudio Muñoz, who was judging. “My eyes went right to Tatiana, because her jumps and turns had phenomenal energy,” Muñoz recalls. That “raw, incredible talent” netted Melendez a full scholarship to the Professional Program at Houston Ballet Academy. After taking time to consider Houston Ballet’s rep (contemporary-leaning), her connection with Muñoz (strong and encouraging), and friends’ testimonials about the year-round program (glowing), Melendez moved into student housing.

Tatiana Melendez, wearing a shiny gold leotard, stands on her left leg on pointe and kicks her bent right leg head height behnd her.
Jayme Thornton

In Houston, Melendez saw no shortage of stage time. She was cast in The Nutcracker and Stanton Welch’s Cinderella, on top of all her academy performances. She was also one of a few academy dancers picked by company member Oliver Halkowich for his contemporary piece Full Circle.

Between shows, she worked hard. “At my competition studio, we never had pas de deux or full pointe classes,” Melendez says. “The grueling academy schedule really polished my technique.” Muñoz says that in just two years Melendez transformed her own dancing: “Tatiana is the most incredible hard worker I ever saw. She became a beautiful swan, with a classical heart and contemporary soul.”

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

Going Pro, With Cons

After graduation, Melendez headed to Fort Worth, where she’d landed a trainee contract with Texas Ballet Theater. It was a tough transition. “I went from training all day every day, to one morning class followed by standing on the side during hours of rehearsal,” she says. Melendez’s gifts were far from ignored, though. As a trainee, she danced in the corps of productions like Swan Lake and Beauty and the Beast, was one of six lead women in Ben Stevenson’s world premiere Martinu Pieces, and led multiple performances of The Nutcracker as Clara.

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

Three women performing onstage, wearing embellished black leotards, do piquu00e9 attitude on pointe under a red spotlight.

From left: 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 classically based companies—only to be told over and over that, while her technique was great, her size was a nonstarter. “Being told ‘no’ so many times was really discouraging, because my height is something I can’t change,” she says. Melendez had even started talking herself into taking a year off from dance when she decided at the last minute to attend Complexions’ open call in New York City. “Complexions was always a dream in the back of my head, but I never thought it’d be attainable—it wasn’t even on my list of places to audition,” she remembers.

Taking Flight

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

She needn’t have worried. As Desmond Richardson, Complexions’ co-founder and co-artistic director says, “Tatiana clearly made her presence known from the moment she walked through the door. I remember Dwight and I saying, ‘Wow, she’s really something.’ Her professionalism, her innate sense of musicality and the sheer force of her were quite nostalgic to me.” Rhoden adds, “What made Tatiana stand out was her fearlessness. She applied corrections, dynamics and ideas immediately in the audition. She knows how to cross the t’s and dot the i’s.”

On a darkened stage, a male dancer in black shorts lifts a leaping female dancer in the air.

Simon Plant and Melendez performing Dwight Rhoden’s WOKE. Stephen Pisano, Courtesy Complexions Contemporary Ballet

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

Though she’s occasionally felt homesick for the classics, Melendez believes that dancing with Complexions allows her to dance as the fully mature version of herself. “As much as Clara was a fun role, and as much as I love watching classical ballet, I don’t want to always be typecast as a little girl,” she explains.

After a season and a half of whirlwind touring (so far to New Zealand, Europe and throughout the U.S.) and intense creative process, Melendez’s newfound routine with Complexions has sadly been put on pause in the age of the coronavirus. At home in Tampa with family, she has used the hiatus to pursue her other creative passions of drawing and photography, and to teach Complexions rep as part of the company’s virtual offerings. Melendez is looking forward to getting back to work with Complexions, and to continued guest appearances with classical companies, like Italy’s Roma City Ballet. “Growing up, I thought I had to focus on just 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 I can for as many choreographers as I can to the fullest capacity I can—which is all I’ve ever wanted to do.” We’d like to see someone try to stop her.