Smoke 'n Roses
Choreographer: Dwight Rhoden
Music: Various composers
Costumes: Dwight Rhoden
Lighting: Michael Korsch
World Premiere: Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, March 15, 2007
PBT Performance Date: March 2007, March 2014
Program Notes Excerpts (2007)
By Carol Meeder, former Director of Arts Education
Dwight Rhoden is a welcome guest at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre (StrayLifeLushHorn, 7th Heaven, Ave Maria, and Simon Said) and a force that has pushed the envelope for PBT dancers, broadening their versatility as artists. Each time he has come to choreograph, the result has been an exciting ballet with a window on his classical training that opens into a panorama of surprises that expands our definition of ballet.
In his work, Rhoden abides by two principles. First he stays true to the music, transforming it into movement that represents and interprets with integrity and respect. Secondly, he studies the pure forms of ballet, but only to defy them. He uses classical technique in order to break the rules.
The development of Smoke ’n Roses took an interesting path. Artistic Director Terrence S. Orr had been searching for another opportunity to share Pittsburgh’s musical talent with PBT’s audience. His love of jazz led him to Etta Cox, a talented singer of jazz, blues, and gospel, as well as a respected voice teacher in the Pittsburgh area.
Cox has never accompanied dancers before, and it has been seven years since Rhoden worked with a live singer at PBT. The stage was set, and the collaboration began to unfold. Rhoden’s rich musical background and his years of dancing with Alvin Ailey established his deep relationship with jazz, as well as its gospel and blues roots. Choreographically he has often worked in this genre. Starting with a list of songs that Cox hoped to sing, they found their common ground musically and chose songs that spoke to both of them.
Rhoden began to work his magic, creating a ballet that honors both the music and the mellow, earthy quality of Cox’s voice. The result is a broad, sweeping medley of songs that flows seamlessly from one melody to the next.
The choreography mirrors the complicated syncopation of the music, the dynamics, and the busy note patterns often found in jazz. Translated into body movement, intricate little steps between larger more flowing movements initiated from the center core of the body creates its own syncopation. Traditionally, jazz musicians embellish the musical line by bending, stretching, or even souring the tone on individual notes. Producing that same effect in the dancer’s body makes the music visual in the movement.
Smoke ’n Roses is a work that covers the wide range of emotions evident in gospel, blues, and jazz. It is fun and witty, but does not avoid the pain that seeps through the lyrics. Emanating from the vocal line and the movement itself, both the low points of despair and the heights of optimism can be felt.
Rhoden’s expressive choreography, Cox’s velvet voice, songs that touch the soul, and musicians weaving their improvisations in and out of dancers’ movement give Smoke ’n Roses an enticing artistic palette to savor.