Ten years ago, Richmond-born Thomas Ragland landed what many dancers only dream about — a full-time job with a professional ballet company.
At the Richmond Ballet, Ragland performed major roles in “The Nutcracker” and “Romeo and Juliet,” as well as new works created by contemporary choreographers. This spring, however, Ragland decided he was ready for a change. He told artistic director Stoner Winslett that he was leaving the company at the end of the season.
Growing up in Richmond, Ragland studied dance at the city dance program at Pine Camp Cultural Arts and Community Center and then went on to the Richmond Ballet School, where he climbed from trainee to apprentice to company member. Within his first two years as a company member, he landed one night in the principal role of the Snow King in “The Nutcracker.”
“The snow scene was my favorite scene,” he says, “and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Mom, I want to do the Snow King.’ And it happened.” Before the performance, he was all nerves. “But when we got out there,” he says, “I kind of let it all go and did my thing.”
Over the years, Ragland danced many roles at the ballet, culminating in Othello in José Limón’s “The Moor’s Pavane” last fall. The lead part showcased the expressive power and dramatic range that Richmond audiences had only been able to glimpse from the dancer in roles such as Paris in “Romeo and Juliet.”
“‘The Moor’s Pavane’ is really close to my heart,” he says. “That was an emotional piece. It touched me ... and took me to a different place. That’s why I love dance so much — you can be a different person on stage.”
By the end of that same season, Ragland made a decision.
“I knew that I was ready to get out of Richmond, to see the world, see different things. When I turned 30 [last December], things started to change, and I thought, ‘I think I’m ready to step out there and see.’ And if I fail, at least I’ll know that I tried. I can always come back home.”
At first, Ragland thought he’d try for work on a cruise ship, “do some jazz, do some high kicks … see the world,” he says. But a funny thing happened when he asked the ballet’s company manager Tracie Woods Morin to help him assemble his reel — a collection of videos used to showcase a dancer’s talent. Morin called New York choreographer Jessica Lang to ask her permission to include footage of one of her dances. It turned out Lang was looking for a male dancer for her company. When she heard that Ragland might be leaving Richmond Ballet, she offered him the job.
Since she’d worked with Ragland a few times when her dances were performed by the ballet, Lang knew he’d be a good fit. “He’s got a lot of experience and he’s beautiful,” she says, “but I also see a lot of potential and further growth. ... He’s in a place of really wanting to be pushed. And, he’s funny. It’s always good to have somebody who has a sense of humor around.”
Former Richmond Ballet dancer Lauren Fagone was a frequent partner of Ragland’s and attests to his ability to forge deep connections.
“Thomas’ greatest strength as a partner was his capacity for empathy,” she says. “It wasn’t just about mastering the steps, but creating something that was dynamic and honest.”
Malcolm Burn, the company’s ballet master, explains that it is losing a lot more than a multitalented dancer. “I don’t think anyone will ever replace him for the hero he was in his outreach work for the community,” he says. “What a role model for everyone around him — he’s been a part of what I call the fabric of Richmond Ballet.”
Ragland moved to New York immediately following the end of Richmond Ballet’s spring season. After just less than a month of rehearsal, in early July he debuted at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Massachusetts. Upcoming performances will include “Aïda” with the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center in September, a new work at Jazz at Lincoln Center in November and a trip to Russia.
Thinking about how his new life came together, he says, was weird.
“It was like I had an angel with me,” he says. “And in talking with my friends [at Richmond Ballet], they were so happy for me. … They wanted me to go out there and achieve my goals and my future, and what I wanted to do.” S