About Rhoden’s The Promised Land
Embodying the Resiliency of the Human Spirit
“My goal is for people to walk away with the sentiment, the emotion, the essence of this time that we’re living in,” says Dwight Rhoden of his new work The Promised Land for San Francisco Ballet. “These days, you have successes, you have failures, you have challenges, you have questions. Where do we go from here?” Rhoden’s new ballet is an abstract meditation on the upheaval of the past few years, with a focus squarely on perseverance. “I wanted to access the resiliency of the human spirit. The essence of the piece is not the pandemic, racial equality, all of the death and loss that we’ve all been experiencing. It’s more about how we recover, what we do to get through, how we meet the challenges day to day.”
The Promised Land is Rhoden’s third new work for SF Ballet. In 2018, Rhoden created LET’S BEGIN AT THE END, which explored the complexities of love and relationships, for the Unbound festival of new works. In 2020, he (remotely) choreographed a section of SF Ballet’s quarantine dance film Dance of Dreams. When dancers were able to return to studios to rehearse, Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson asked Rhoden to create a work for the 2022 Season, in part because “the dancers like very much working with him,” says Tomasson. “And I understand why. Dwight builds upon the dynamics of the dancers, their athleticism, and their strong technique.”
Rhoden, who cofounded Complexions Contemporary Ballet in 1994 with Desmond Richardson, has a distinctive choreographic style, one that starts with ballet technique, then speeds it up, adds detail and intricacy, shifts some of the movement to the torso and off-center, and plays with contrasting and counter rhythms. The beauty of the steps is one layer, beneath which flow the concepts Rhoden is exploring. “There’s a philosophy to the way the movement unfolds and moves,” says Rhoden. “Details are everything. And the dancers have to be able to deliver an emotion or a feeling as well.
“It’s no secret that I really love these dancers in this company,” Rhoden says. “I don’t really pretend to have all the best ideas when I walk into the room. You have to know, as a choreographer, when to get out of the way and allow the dancers to . . . become. Because the work doesn’t live without them. So I depend on them to bring it to life.”
There isn’t a story in the traditional sense in Rhoden’s new work, but there’s meaning to be found in the movement. In a combination of Zoom and in-person rehearsals during the summer of 2021, Rhoden shared some of his intentions with dancers then focused on letting ideas bubble up as the dancers mastered the intricate choreography. “I’m always encouraged to give them a little bit of information about my direction,” he explains. “I don’t want to tell them too much too soon, because I want to make sure that the movement does the work, without them having to paint on a certain emotion or story. I want the dancers to authentically get there through the movement. A lot of times they take it way further than I ever could have dreamed of.”
Just as the past few years have ricocheted from extreme change to sudden stillness, there’s a range of textures within Rhoden’s piece, from fast and chaotic to pensive and serene. “There’s pain. There is a great sense of loss around the world, and so I felt like loss had a bigger stake to play in this ballet. But I’m not giving you the story of the insurgency that happened in January. I’m not giving you the COVID statistics. The piece sounds like it’s dark, but it’s not. They don’t give up, they work through it. Even if you don’t have the answer, you keep going until you do.”
That texture extends to the ballet’s score, which Rhoden assembled from several different pieces of music. He chose works from composers Philip Glass, Luke Howard, Kirill Richter, Hans Zimmer, and Peter Gregson’s work inspired by Bach. “It’s a playlist of many different things,” explains Rhoden. “There are a lot of different temperatures [in the ballet], and I didn’t find it all in one piece of music from one composer. They’re all contemporary classical music and the orchestra will play everything, which I’m really looking forward to.”
Rhoden says that audience members know everything they need to know going into this ballet, just from experiencing the past few years. “I want them to feel more than anything. I hope it’s an interesting visual—I’m working hard for that—and these dancers are sensational. But the essence of the piece is in the heart, in the way that an experience in the theater can be transformative. You think back and you move forward.”
This production was part of the 2022 Season.
by Caitlin Sims
Header Image: San Francisco Ballet in Rhoden’s The Promised Land // © Erik Tomasson