Even for an artist who excels at trying new things, RZA’s “A Ballet Through Mud” is a risk.
“We’re excited here, but a little bit nervous,” said the Grammy-nominated rapper, composer and co-founder of the legendary hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan. “Denver is the first place that will see this dream, but it’s something we want to show to other people as well.”
RZA traveled to Denver this week to rehearse the new work, which will join his “36 Chambers of Shaolin” as part of Colorado Symphony’s Imagination Artist Series. The mouthful of a title is one of the symphony’s most heavily promoted fusion experiments, so far bringing in respected artists RZA, Denver’s own Nathaniel Rateliff, and Broadway star Mary-Mitchell Campbell.
RZA will lead his own double-header world premiere on Friday, Feb. 17, and Saturday, Feb. 18, at Boettcher Concert Hall, followed by Rateliff with the Colorado Symphony at Boettcher March 3 and 4. The series offers a sort of blank check for the artists, who can create, reinterpret and curate works with the backing of a full orchestra — and whatever else is needed for realize the vision.
In RZA’s case, that includes dancers and a celebrated choreographer, as well as a full choir and other backing baubles, to support the musical and spoken-word performances, and even a pop-in from Stravinsky’s towering “The Rite of Spring.” Critics have long called RZA, 53, a genius who has yet to find a genre that he can’t master, and it’s easy to see why.
“We were actually able to get Yusha-Marie Sorzano to choreograph, who’s danced with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater,” RZA said excitedly via phone during a break from rehearsals at Boettcher this week. “I gave her the story of the ballet and she put her brain to it, pulling a great cast of dancers who are also acting out their roles and characters. … We started this project here in Denver a year ago to this day (Feb. 14), when I was out here having Valentine’s Day dinner with my wife. We had to come out to see the vibe and if we could get the dancers to find the groove and the tempos, you know? To see if the music was speaking to them.
“I have very weird tempos by the way,” RZA added. “It’s very self-generated, because I don’t write to clicks.”
RZA has been working on the project in fits and spurts since the early days of the pandemic, having felt inspired to write his first classical album, then ballet, after years of acclaimed film scores (see Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill,” volumes 1 and 2), directing and acting gigs, producing duties, and side projects. Meanwhile, Hulu just premiered Season 3 of the semi-fictionalized Wu-Tang biographical drama “Wu-Tang: An American Saga,” and RZA’s panoply of projects never put him far from the news cycle.
RZA acknowledged that he can be a challenging, and deeply demanding, band leader and composer. “A Ballet Through Mud” is advertised as R-rated, with material that may be sensitive to some viewers.
“I was sitting there during COVID thinking, ‘I’m going to write a classical album and no one’s going to stop me!’ ” he said. “So I did that, but then I was like, ‘Who’s going to play it?’ I could of course go to my Hollywood team and get a couple of my old collaborators. But I feel like there’s something special about (Colorado Symphony resident conductor) Christopher Dragon and (artistic director) Tony Pierce and (artistic operations manager) Dustin Knock.”
RZA’s sunny relationship with Colorado Symphony started in 2021 with an orchestra-backed Wu-Tang performance at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. It was RZA’s first concert since COVID-19 quarantine had ended, and a deeply meaningful one for him. The performance — with the full Wu-Tang Clan on stage and OutKast’s Big Boi opening — further honed “36 Chambers of Shaolin” and was a sold-out hit, paving the way for the current collaboration.
“Inspiration only works if everybody keeps their cool, and this group did, even when I wanted to make a U-turn or step on the gas,” RZA said with a laugh. “Nobody made me feel uncomfortable or that they couldn’t rise to the challenge. …
“This is a really unique way to bring in artists from diverse backgrounds,” he said. “As a Black man, it’s great to see such an evolved orchestra, because there’s a certain stigma between classical musicians and rock or hip hop. The musicians here are all cool, and some of them are even Wu-Tang fans.”
If you go
“RZA and the Colorado Symphony Present: 36 Chambers of Shaolin and A Ballet Through Mud.” A hybrid dance, music and spoken-word program, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17, and Saturday, Feb. 18, at Boettcher Concert Hall, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 1000 14th St. Tickets: $15-$98 via 303-623-7876 or coloradosymphony.org/tickets
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