Dwight Rhoden: I wanted to do this ballet called “Love Rocks,” because I felt like we needed it in the world. I’m just responding to the environment, the political climate, where we are as a country morally, socioeconomically, all of that. And I just wanted something that was going to feel good. And I also wanted to just kind of have a moment to spread love through dance.
Stephanie Wolf: Choreographer Dwight Rhoden created his ballet “Love Rocks” for the company he co-founded: Complexions Contemporary Ballet. He choreographed it to the music of Grammy Award winning songwriter and musician Lenny Kravitz.
HERE TO LOVE BY LENNY KRAVITZ
DR: He’s about love and togetherness and sending a message through the music. And I’ve always, always, always connected with that idea.
DR: I’m just a romantic. I still believe that love can save the world.
MUSIC FADES OUT
SW: This is UnSequenced – a podcast about the choreographic process. And on today’s episode, we hear about how Rhoden’s latest rock ballet came together. I’m your host, Stephanie Wolf.
SW: The world premiere of “Love Rocks” was at the Joyce Theater in New York in January of 2020, before the U.S. felt the full effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic, and months before nationwide protests against racism and police brutality began.
I want to go back to the early 2000s when you first met Lenny Kravitz. What do you remember about that very first meeting?
DR: Well I was actually there to do a job for Prince, really my first commercial job after I had stopped dancing. Well, I would say, you know, big job. I was helping choreograph a lot of the different songs that he was going to take on tour and, and all of that. So we put together the show and we were doing sort of almost like a test run with an invited audience. And Lenny came and he was like the opening number for the evening. And I met him there, right as we were putting this show together, and the show was going to be later on that evening. And I was asked to choreograph American Woman for this soundstage performance like just kind of on the spot. And I was like, Well, yeah, I’ll do that. Sure. No problem, Lenny Kravitz, Prince. I was just so happy to be there. And that’s how I met him.
I was a big fan, always a big fan. Lenny has been at the top of my list to make a ballet for years. The first thing you have to think about when you’re doing something like that is okay, well, can I get the permission to use his music? Can I get the rights? I was talking to Desmond Richardson, my co director, and he was like, come on, let’s do this. If you really want to do this, let’s go for it. And then we got in touch with Lenny and everything worked out beautifully.
SW: I’m always curious when you’re creating to music with lyrics, how different that is than the experience of creating movement to music without lyrics, and how much the lyrics inform the actual movement?”
DR: I do my best to really take in the music and know the song through and through. A lot of times, dancers are surprised because I don’t use music right away. I get the movement going, but I’m always in my head, thinking about the material and where it’s going and the song I want this movement for. Sometimes I’ll even do things like put my headphones on while I’m choreographing, so I just double check where I am before I actually let the dancers in. And that could be a little selfish, I don’t know. But I’m always like a little bit before I actually give it over to them because once it’s theirs, it’s theirs. And they are also influencing the movement as well. But in terms of the lyrics you have to be careful. I’ve choreographed to a lot of popular music. I’m careful about being too literal with the movement and the lyrics, especially with someone as strong as a performance as Lenny gives. I mean his music is in your face if you want, it’s right there for you to get. So I don’t think I need to beat them over the head with the lyrics. I think the lyrics are there, they serve as a foundation, a background, an environment that the characters in the dance kind of live in. You have to embrace it too, because those are some strong elements there. That vocal, all those guitars. It’s a cool thing, but definitely I find myself pulling back from just interpreting the lyrics.
I like to work a bit abstract in a way. In terms of the movement, the characters, the relationships, the connections, the lack thereof, all of those, those things that are happening within the piece, and certainly within the concept of what love does and what love is, both romantic and non romantic love, love In general, the human condition, you don’t want to make it too obvious. You want to try to find interesting ways to convey your story. And also, you know, one of the biggest things that I wanted to do with this work is touch people. I really needed this piece to touch the audience or bring them into the concept. Have them feel something.
The very first song which is ‘We Can Get It All Together.” That did not emerge as song number one until probably, I want to say a couple weeks before we actually went in and got into the theater. I was working with so many different ways to open up the concept. And I was like no, this is the song. It took that long. Because it was kind of, I wanted the piece to be communal in the beginning. I also took a piece of the beginning and kind of remixed the beginning before we actually go into the song, so there’s like an intro…
REMIX OPENING MUSIC
…that I just remixed and sometimes I looped it, I guess it was looped. I work with an engineer that works with me all the time and we wanted to set up an environment and then we wanted it to just take off about being you know, the message of the piece, we can get it all together.
DR: I just kind of wanted it to rip into the concept, have people out there in that world and then slowly break it down a little bit more in each one of the sections that follow. And I needed a drama and a sense of theatricality and that music, “We Can Get It All Together” was big.
DR: Sometimes there’s a part and the choreographer just won’t leave it alone, and they just keep messing with it. I had the rest of the choreography once the song started getting into the beat. I knew where that was going. But before that, that opening, sort of gathering of people, that clump of people that spill out, and that pas de deux that emerges in the center and all of that. I couldn’t figure that out for the life of me what I wanted to do. I thought this work was an important work for me personally, also for the company and what we were giving to the audience at this moment. I mean, the season before I had done a work called Woke, which was very, very intense and dealt with all of the social issues and moral issues that we’re dealing with, kind of like the headlines. And this piece itself, I needed to have it almost be an answer to that. I needed this to be a more of a healing moment. So it was very important to me how the piece unfolded, and where it was going to go.
ARE YOU GONNA GO MY WAY BY LENNY KRAVITZ
DR: “Are You Gonna Go My Way” was one of his biggest hits.
DR: And I wanted to use this song because, this was like the whole group, they all are in the first song, they’re all moving across the stage. They’re all together, there’s a lot of configurations that come out of it, duets, trios, quartets, a lot of group work. And then we end up in a place where we go deeper. And really the message is, so is everyone going to come and go in this direction in order for us to achieve tranquility and happiness and peace? Can we do this? So this is kind of a hard edge, feel good, certain characters break out, duets breakout again. So it’s very poly-rhythmical. And then you settle into I think it’s “I Belong to You.”
I BELONG TO YOU BY LENNY KRAVITZ
DR: “I Belong to You” goes really into a little bit more about romantic love but also just togetherness bonds, unions. It’s about the deep love that you can have for someone where you feel that, you know, you belong to each other.
DR: There’s a lot of duet work in that section. The next one is “Take Time.”
TAKE TIME BY LENNY KRAVITZ
DR: Now “Take Time,” it wasn’t a big hit, but it was a huge hit for me. And “Take Time” is a little darker. It’s a little bit of a cautionary tale. It’s about we have to have patience with each other. We have to listen to one another. We have to be cognizant of our environment. We have to be cognizant of the world we live in, we have to be cognizant of how we deal with each other as people. And I think that “Take Time” really, it became a bit dark. Not dark, I would say intense. There was an intensity and it kind of deepened right here in “Take Time.”
And the movement was a little bit pulled back in terms of how fast it was. It kind of slowed down, but it was still really kind of driving in a way. Then there’s “Fly Away.”
FLY AWAY BY LENNY KRAVITZ
DR: Kind of a dream of how things could be perfect if we could just get this right. If we could had that patience. Like a fantastical kind of experience where you could find that place of bliss and happiness in the concept of love.
MUSIC FADES OUT
DR: And then there’s “Calling All Angels.”
CALLING ALL ANGELS BY LENNY KRAVITZ
DR: In the world, sometimes you experience loss. It’s sort of weird, in order to appreciate love fully, sometimes experiencing loss really brings that into perspective and focuses in on, you know what, all of that stuff we just talked about the patience, the listening to one another and trying to be empathetic, doesn’t really make sense until you actually don’t have it or you’re missing some part of yourself or someone in your life. Or it could be even something that you love is no longer a part of what you do.
Then I went to a song that no one’s really ever heard of which is “Riding on the Wings of My Lord.”
RIDING ON THE WINGS OF MY LORD BY LENNY KRAVITZ
DR: Which is like an old blues song and that’s really pretty much he says, like, two or three different lines and that’s it.
DR: It was on one of his albums as kind of like a demo test run and I used it and I love it. It’s not religious in any way but I think more on a spiritual tip. I told him it could be something called like an Igneous Rhapsody. It could be like ignition where you’re like running into the space looking for the answers.
Then there’s a song called “It’s Enough.” I love this song. It’s a long song. And it’s really dealing with where we are as people politically, morally, it talks about big topic issues like peace, and war, capitalism, and greed and all of these different things. And it’s basically saying that’s enough. Like we’ve got to get to this place, when are we going to learn? There’s a lot of movement in that section that is radical, rebellious, kind of putting your middle finger up to the system. And saying the answer lies within all of us.
IT’S ENOUGH BY LENNY KRAVITZ
DR: I do come in the studio with an idea, a shape of things, but it’s very sort of a broad stroke on things. You know what I mean? I try to make sure that I can get out of the way in case something incredible happens that I could never imagine. And that’s where the dancers come in.
That’s why the artists are so important to the process for me because I don’t pretend to have all the best ideas. So that’s still what the thrill is for me as a choreographer, that’s what I love to do. And that’s why I still do this. But I start with phrases, I make a lot of material. With my own company, I did a little preparation before but not as much as I normally do for such a large work. It’s a 47 minute work. I just start building material. I start building phrases and I’ll be working on a phrase that’s for a specific song in my head. And then sometimes that material goes better with another one. So I start to play with the playlist.
So Desmond, who is, as you know, my co-director, but also was and is my muse and the person that’s right there for every step. Because he thinks differently. He’s like, so what order? I say, I don’t know. I think I make a big old mess. And I think for dancers, once you work with me long enough, like my company, they just roll with it.
There is also sometimes an element of improvisation as well. I will ask the dancers, sometimes. I’ll put on a section of music and I”ll say guys, I’ll give them an idea. And I’ll say just move. Just move for me. How do you feel this music? What are you feeling? And out of that sometimes comes some cool, but most of the time I stay really in front of making the actual steps. But I love their influence. I love to watch them move, and I’ll take something that they do and build upon it.
HERE TO LOVE BY LENNY KRAVITZ
DR: And then the final section is “Here to Love” and that is one of his latest songs. And that kind of speaks for itself. That was almost like a denouement to the whole piece. It kind of summed up. It’s very simple. We’re back to where we started. It’s really just about us, and only we can change it. And only we can make a difference.
MUSIC FADES OUT
SW: Rhoden says Lenny Kravitz FaceTimed with the company on opening night at the Joyce Theater. And that was an amazing moment for him and the company.
DR: I think that this piece itself was a really important moment for me. I enjoyed doing it. I enjoyed my time in the studio. I was tense sometimes. You know, I probably exhausted them because I had to almost try everything in my head. Before I could feel satisfied to move on and feel like I found it. And again, that’s because I cared so deeply about the music and the message. And you know what I also feel like, because this whole quarantine and this, this whole COVID-19 thing, kind of grounded all of us for a moment. I couldn’t wait to get this in front of more audiences. Now we did have all of those performances at the Joyce and this was amazing but I was looking forward to going back into the studio, still fine tuning. Also, the dancers after they performed it for that long run, I bet you they’re going to come back to it in a completely different way. And now after this experience, this unfortunate experience with where we are, it’s going to be more precious. I try to explain to them how important this is. Your message, what you’re doing on the stage really affects people, you’re transporting people.
SW: Rhoden and I reconnected recently via email. I was curious how he’s been reflecting on the work these days. Here’s a bit of what he wrote:
“For me – it all starts with love. Love has always been the answer and will always be the answer. Love takes on many forms – such as empathy, compassion, patience, generosity, respect, awareness to name a few. The challenges we are facing are not new. Particularly with race relations and all of its inequity. Add the pandemic on top of that and the struggle is real. I think that we are living in a time where the strength and the history of the activists and trailblazers that came before us has reached its boiling point. Progress has happened, but not enough. If I can make any type of impact – I try to use my work to touch people.”
SW: Choreographer and co-artistic director of Complexions Contemporary Ballet Dwight Rhoden, discussing his work “Love Rocks,” set to the music of Lenny Kravitz.
This episode was recorded, edited and produced by me, Stephanie Wolf.
This episode also marks the conclusion of our second season. We’re going to take a break for a few months to gear up for a new season of UnSequenced. Keep an eye on this feed for more information about that! And we’ll be working on some other audio offerings that we can’t wait to share with you! For updates on those, as well as our Zoom Q&As with moving artists, follow us on Instagram at diydancermag.
As always, thanks to Joe Kye who composed our theme music. The performance and rehearsal excerpts you heard in this episode are courtesy of Complexions Contemporary Ballet. Thanks to our Patreon subscribers, who make this podcast possible. You can join them at patreon.com/diydancer.
Find UnSequenced wherever you get your podcasts. And thanks for listening!