Sweatin’to the Oldies

Pascal Rioult’s choreography struggles to match the classical masters

By GUS SOLOMONS JR.

No one can accuse Pascal Rioult of being afraid to tackle big musical scores.

In his company’s Joyce Theater season, May 4 through 9, he wrestled with four of them—a Bach, two Stravinskys, and a Ravel. The score: music-2; Rioult-1; and a draw. Rioult danced with Martha Graham’s company in the eighties, and his vocabulary shows her influence in contracted spirals of the spine, turned-in side extensions, and cupped hands. He, too, often takes on lofty themes, though not the mythic or biblical ones that inspired Graham.

In “Fugue for Men,” set to Bach’s “Toccata in C Minor,” despite the clever conceit of draping the stage with seven columns of fabric and placing dancing in the spaces between them, Rioult’s deployment of four poster-worthy men in blue briefs lacks sufficient movement variety. Canonic arrangements illustrate the voices of the fugue, and the men alternately dance in paired unisons, cascading sequences, and partnering couples. But Rioult’s invention ends before the music does.

Bach wins.

“Black Diamond” takes on Stravinsky’s “Duo Concertant.” Here, in a lyrically dramatic duet for women, Rioult explores levels. In the first section, dancing atop four-foot high platforms, the women move in unison and alternate leading in little canons. They descend from the platforms for a duo, in which each does a different arrangement of taut, muscular themes, remaining close together but not making physical contact: soul sisters relating to the same emotional stimulus. Then, they remount the platforms for a recapitulation, informed by the kinetic journey they’ve taken. Here again, perhaps understandably, repetitiveness dulls the kinetic impact—it’s a long score for just two dancers.

But let’s call this one even-steven, because what remains engaging throughout is the strong, fiery performance by Lorena B. Egan and Penelope Gonzalez.

Next, Rioult again confronts Stravinsky. When you’re playing with a team of just nine dancers, it’s hardly a fair fight against the huge instrumental forces of “Firebird.”

Eight robotic ciphers in black and gray tights (by Pilar Limosner) plod stiffly hunched between the gray buttes and mesas that jut from the wings in Harry Feiner’s set, which also features a black, downward-pointing triangle. This symbolic cloud rises and falls during the piece, signaling changes of mood. David Finley furnishes the dramatically stark lighting.

Into this somber, dysfunctional society skips a ray of light—the title character in the form of ten-year-old Hannah Burnette. Clad in white and waving the two peacock plumes she carries in intricate semaphore, she magically lifts the humors of the tribe and assuages the violence they wreak on each other. Burnette’s simple authority makes her performance riveting. In this leading role, her innocent presence radiates and truly centers the ballet. (Full disclosure: Burnette performed a role earlier this season in “Filtrate,” a work by Johannes Wieland, in which this reviewer also performed.)

In most “Firebird” productions, the prolonged musical finale backs an elegant procession of lavishly costumed hordes. Rioult tries to match the dancers’ energy to that of the score—a losing cause. Despite his most inventive partnering and a Herculean expenditure of effort from the dancers, the volume of music beats them down instead of buoying them.

Here again, composer trumps choreographer. Score one for Stravinsky.

Rioult is a fine craftsman who composes expertly, finding striking dance motifs and arranging them coherently in space and time to suit his expressive intentions and technically strong, energetic dancers who bring the work to life. Finally, with Ravel’s “Bolero” Rioult scores. The structure highlights each dancer by turns in adagio solos amid a matrix of repetitive prancing motifs by the other seven, arrayed in front of Feiner’s backdrop: a lofty gallery, rendered in cubist style. The group movement escalates in virtuosity and spatial complexity. Dancers fall into unison, then fracture again momentarily into individual gestures just before the crashing finish.

Rioult, in a knockout.

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