In 1992, The New York Times dance critic Jennifer Dunning predicted, "If Pascal Rioult keeps on creating the kinds of dances he has been choreographing with such authority for a mere three years, he may have to leave his job as a soloist with the Martha Graham Dance Company and become a full-time choreographer." Two years later, Rioult did just that.
To commence its year-long 20th anniversary celebration, RIOULT Dance NY will offer two presentations on its home turf, the 92nd Street Y (February 14-15) and the Joyce Theater (June 17-22) that will pay homage to Rioult's mentors; dance pioneers May O'Donnell and Martha Graham, in addition to highlighting dances from his canon of over 40 choreographies.
"When contemplating doing a special program for the 20th anniversary, I thought it would be fairly unusual to honor my roots," explained Rioult in a phone interview. "Even though I have created my own vocabulary, it doesn't come out of the blue. It evolved from what I learned and came from, which is American modern dance."
He added, "In art as in nature, nothing is born out of the void; everything transforms from somewhere. A lot of things are new, but always an adaptation and transformation to your environment, your make-up and some part of chance. Here is where I come from and here is what I did with it."
In his native France Rioult was a former national-level track and field athlete. His mother was a pianist and piano teacher, so music was in his blood since before he was born, he said. "My love of music and movement found its way somehow in dance, but I never thought of doing it professionally," he related.
By chance he saw a classical contemporary dance class in Paris and after leaving the studio he said to himself: "This is what I want to do. Within a few months, I had dropped everything."
In 1981, he came to New York for six months on a fellowship from the French Ministry of Culture, "to study dance fast," he said. "And I never left."
After performing with the companies of May O'Donnell and Paul Sanasardo (both former Graham dancers), he was invited to join the Martha Graham Dance Company, where he was a soloist for 13 years. O'Donnell and Graham could not have been more different, acknowledged Rioult, but he learned a great deal from both. Although not many people nowadays have heard of O'Donnell, he admitted, "she was an inspiring and versatile teacher and choreographer. She was a lot more fluid and musical than Graham, which was what I have taken from her. Nature and a connection to the universe were very important to her."
In contrast, he noted, "Martha was much more intellectual and dramatic. I learned a lot about the craft of choreographing and dramatic tension from her. But I do more abstract."
Rioult met Joyce Herring in the Graham Company, and they married in 1988. Herring was a principal dancer with Graham for 14 years, until 1999, and continues to be a regisseur of the Graham Trust. She is a founding member of RIOULT Dance NY. "I got a wonderful relationship as well as a wonderful partnership for the company," said Rioult. "We are very complimentary. I choreograph the work, but I don't like to clean up stuff. She is absolutely incredible at teaching dance. I teach, too, but she trains the dancers and rehearses them and makes sure the work looks exactly right."
The Y program features four dances, beginning with O'Donnell's 1943 modern dance classic, "Suspension", with music by Ray Green, which has been restaged by former O'Donnell Dance Company members Lynn Frielinghaus, Barbara Allegra Verlezza and Nancy Lushington. It was inspired by her memory of seeing an airplane below a California hilltop on which she was standing during wartime. "I chose it not only because it's a fabulous piece, but also some people have said it was probably the first abstract piece ever choreographed—even before Merce Cunningham," he said. "It's purely about bodies in space making lines, which you think is almost by chance. It was before its time."
Graham's iconic "El Penitente" (1940), with music by Louis Horst, is constructed as a play within a play. It opens with the entrance of a troupe of strolling players who put on costumes and enact a series of vignettes from the Bible. The pageant includes flagellation, revelation, seduction, repentance, crucifixion and salvation. Rioult, Herring, and Kenneth Topping have taught their former roles to the current dancers.
I asked Rioult how one can keep such a vintage piece fresh. He replied, "The innocent play that is in the dance. The almost naïve ritual in the Southwest. To me, it's probably the only piece I've danced in where I don't feel I am onstage directing my energy towards an audience, but I am inside four walls doing a ritual play. It's very strange and interesting. The structure is ritual walks between sections. If you are true to the ritual, then it is fresh and true."
The two other pieces are "Wien" (1995), set to Ravel's La Valse
) and "Views of the Fleeting World" (2008), set to J.S. Bach's The Art of Fugue
). "Wien" was his first choreography through a grant from the Y. It exposes the dark side of a society that can dance Viennese waltzes while falling into decadence and moral disintegration, leading into the Second World War and the atrocities that ensued. "Austria was the first country to be annexed and aligned with the Nazis," said Rioult. "The most elegant society, dancing the Viennese waltz while outside the world was going to hell. You can take Kosovo, Darfur, in Syria now, it never stops. How does society seem 'normal,' taken into this vortex of violence and racism? At the heart is a whirlpool or tornado feeling. The piece is all circles, turning and turning and circling around the stage and around each other…until it just breaks apart."
"Views" is composed of nine short sections, which capture a moment in time and nature through the colors, lines and rhythms of the dance. Although it was inspired by the ancient woodblock prints of the Japanese master Hiroshige, Rioult credits Graham as informing his transitions. "Every transition sets the stage for the next section, as she had done."
A portion of a video montage will be screened for the Y program, shown in between the two pieces in each half of the program. (The Joyce audience will see the completed video.) It honors O'Donnell and Graham, their influence on the dance world and on Rioult's evolution as an artist. Rioult will also present a talk.
At the Joyce, the repertoire will be expanded to include "Black Diamond" (2003) set to Stravinsky's Duo Concertant
, "Iphigenia" (2013) with music by Michael Torke, and a world premiere - TBA. "Black Diamond," an abstract piece for two female dancers, has a big set so he can't mount it at the Y's intimate space. "I want to put the dancers on an altar. I think they are semi-goddesses," said Rioult. "They have a sense of strength, purity, beauty and mystery, the same qualities as a diamond."
Asked about tackling a choreography named "Iphigenia," given Graham's penchant for mounting turbulent Greek myths, Rioult laughed. "It's the first time I have done anything related to Graham, and that scared me a lot, but it was time. But it is very different. Of course, I love all that stuff. I was there. Even though I stayed away from it, it was always a piece I wanted to do. So there we are."Performances at the 92nd Street Y, Harkness Dance Center, 92nd Street and Lexington Avenue, February 14-15. Tickets are $20 and available at www.92Y.org/dance, or call 212-415-5500. Performances at the Joyce Theater, 178 Eighth Avenue at 19th Street, June 17-22, www.joyce.org. Tickets to the Gala on Wednesday, June 18, call 212-398-5901.
For information about the intensive workshops for pre-professionals that Rioult teaches and the new children's classes on Saturdays, taught by some of his dancers, and other details, go to www.rioult.org
RIOULT Dance NY in Pascal Rioult's "Wien".
Photo © & courtesy of Antonio Gonzalez
RIOULT Dance NY in Pascal Rioult's "Views of the Fleeting World".
Photo © & courtesy of Basil Childers
May O'Donnell's "Suspension". Photo by John Van Lund.