OUTstanding Virginians 2015

Todd Rosenlieb – Choreographer, Educator, and Mentor, Norfolk

Todd Head ShotTo call the thriving institutions that Todd Rosenlieb has built in Norfolk a “labor of love” would miss the point. Everything Todd does has love at the center—even his last name, which means “rose love” in German.

When Todd talks about his life, the first milestone he mentions is a love story. “I came out in the eighties as a teenager,” he says; “I was in love and couldn’t hide my incredible feelings about this wonderful man.” Unlike many coming out stories from that time, Todd’s was happy from the start. When he told his parents, they completely welcomed his partner. “I grew up in a house of love,” he explains.

In college, Todd double majored in English and Economic theory, yet ever since he was a small child he also loved to perform—musicals, choir, piano, and gymnastics. When dance entered his life, there was no looking back. After graduate dance studies at NYU’s renowned Tisch School for the Arts, Todd enjoyed a fulfilling eleven years as a New York-based choreographer and performer, primarily with Erick Hawkins (Martha Graham’s ex-husband and dance partner). At one point, when he was teaching a Hawkins dance to Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Company, he would check his answering machine messages and hear a thickly accented voice saying, “Hello, Todd, this is Misha.” Upon Hawkins’ death, Todd was named company director, becoming the youngest dancer to direct a major American company.

Todd first came to Virginia in 1994 for a three-week residency at the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk. After that, he returned every year, becoming increasingly involved with the life of the region. In 2000, on a visit to choreograph a piece for the Virginia Arts Festival, the idea occurred to him that this might be a good place to begin the next stage of his career. “It had warmth, beaches, no snow, and culture,” says Todd, adding, “and boy do we have culture.”

So he moved to Norfolk and founded a new company called TR Dance, plus an academy for dance and a Pilates studio.  In 2001, a Pilates client informed Todd that she and her husband had a dream to purchase a piece of commercial real estate that would house Todd’s fledgling endeavors and the initiatives of his partner, Ricardo Melendez, an actor, playwright and director who has worked nationally and abroad.  The client couple would help finance the purchase and development of the property.

Neither Todd nor Ricardo nor their supporters could foresee just how vibrant and important to the community the new facility would become. Today, the 10,000-square foot space houses two professional dance companies and a theater company, plus the Governor’s School–where Todd is chair of the dance program–and Tidewater Community College. It is also home to a dance academy, an adaptive dance program for children with Down syndrome, and numerous dance and drama programs for underserved children in Hampton Roads. “I discovered my studio had become a community center,” says Todd with pride.

Not content to keep within the walls of his studio, Todd developed dance outreach programs for Portsmouth Public Schools, the PB Young Project in collaboration with the United Way, and KIP (Kids of Incarcerated Parents). On a smaller scale but no less important is the informal mentoring he and Ricardo provide whenever a parent comes to them and says, “I need help raising my kid.”

As his impact reached ever deeper into the community, Todd found he could leverage his many relationships for the support of causes he cares about, including the Reel It Out Film Festival, Hampton Roads Pride, the Legends Gala, Arts for Life (the arts communty’s World AIDS Day fundraiser), and Equality Virginia.  The previous decade’s fights over same-sex marriage in Virginia and California galvanized him and Ricardo around the issue of marriage equality.  Although Todd has always felt that “to love someone of my own gender is as natural as my parents’ love,” he recognizes that the right to marry needs to be guaranteed by law.

Over the years, Todd has been lauded for his community work and activism, and TR Dance has won an award for something every year since it opened nine years ago. Today, Todd feels his life has achieved a good balance of artistic creativity and progressive social involvement. “Creating art, doing the right thing, and giving to people who need it is a no-brainer,” he says. Looking back on his journey, he says, “I found all of these options beautiful.”

Celebrate the freedom to marry and honor the 2015 OUTstanding Virginians by joining us at this year’s Commonwealth Dinner!