A life in dance came as a complete, yet thrilling surprise to the young Pascal Rioult. Except for a chance encounter at a disco club, the modern dance choreographer with his own acclaimed company would likely have followed an entirely different path.
Exuding an effortless, affable charm, Rioult, speaking by phone from New York City where his eponymous company is based, chatted — seemingly with no worries about time constraints — about his unexpected, life-altering journey.
A former Martha Graham principal dancer, Rioult was a track-and-field star in France, a hurdler, and a bit of a wild child when he encountered a professional dancer in a club in his Normandy hometown.
Admitting that in those young days he was “a maniac,” he recalled: “I loved to dance in clubs. …By chance I met a professional dancer, and she said why don’t you watch a class. My life was changed.”
Powerful physicality is still a major component of Rioult’s choreography, which is also noted for its inventiveness, exquisite musicality, precise architectural structure and undercurrents of sensuality and emotion.
In dance, he said, he discovered the perfect communion for his love of movement and music. “It was the ideal marriage. … And as an athlete, I knew what hard physical work means.”
In a mere five years, he went from disco to the legendary Martha Graham.
Along the way, he moved to New York City (“the world capital of dance”) in 1981 to study modern dance on a fellowship from the French Ministry of Culture. Once there, he took classes with Merce Cunningham (then considered “the” contemporary choreographer) and performed with the companies of former Graham student Paul Sanasardo (“my first real mentor”) and former Graham principal dancer May O’Donnell — who created the role of the “Pioneering Woman” in the original “Appalachian Spring” — before being invited to join the Graham company where he danced for a decade.
In 1990, Graham created the central role of the Death Figure in “The Eye of the Goddess” for him. He later performed opposite of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Joyce Herring in Graham’s “El Penitente” and also was featured in two television specials, “Martha Graham in Japan” and “Five Dances by Martha Graham at the Paris Opera.”
Although he “took it somewhere else,” in essence, Rioult, now 58, said, he still uses the techniques and ways of training dancers that he learned with Graham but with an even deeper understanding.
“What I took from her was determination. Even at 90 years old, you could feel that in her. And the sharpness of her focus,” he said.
Suggesting that the founding of his own company was “inevitable … an epiphany,” Rioult also recalled Graham advising him: “You don’t choose to be a choreographer, it chooses you.”
He mused, “It’s like finding the right person in marriage. You just know, and I didn’t question it.”
Rioult, which he founded in 1994 and features 11 dancers and one apprentice, makes its first appearance in the greater Washington, D.C., area at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts on March 8.
Its Mason program consists of four pieces that are different in style and period. They include: 2011’s “Celestial Tides,” danced to Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 6;” two works danced to music by Maurice Ravel: 1995’s “Wien,” set to “La Valse,” and 2008’s “Bolero,” set to the piece by the same name; and 2011’s “On Distant Shores,” a work inspired by Helen of Troy and danced to music by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis.
“I always try to give the audience a well-balanced meal but with different ingredients and tastes. … It’s not just putting steps to music,” he said.
Very architectural, his dances, he explained, are like successful buildings. They are both functional and visually pleasing, and they must abide by certain laws of physics, Rioult said.
“I like works to be both intriguing and interesting, a bit off-kilter but structurally sound. … I concentrate on the patterns dancers make on stage; it looks very architectural … Modern technique informed by very classic forms,” he said.
The challenge, he noted, is to continue to evolve and find new forms of expression without “losing the soul behind it.”
While his individual style favors abstract forms, in which structure is preeminent, it retains undercurrents of strong emotion, sensuality and sexuality. These qualities, he said, come naturally from the way his dancers move, how their bodies relate to the space and each other and their exceptional muscle tone and physicality.
Amplifying his choreography’s sensuality is Rioult’s penchant for lots of partnering and duet work. He said, “I love people, and I love women, and it just comes out.”
His dancers, he emphasized, fit no particular type. What unites them is the ability to go “beyond what the normal human body would do. That’s what makes it so exciting; what makes modern dance so powerful,” he said. “Within reason, I push them beyond physics and physicality.”
Also critical is that they “must believe in what I do … be there for the work.”
Difficult, dramatic and symbolic “Wein,” choreographed a year after the founding of his company, is a signature Rioult work. Part of his “Ravel Project,” Rioult, who has a self-described “great affinity” for Ravel music, regards “Wein” as an important piece ... a piece that greatly developed his “craft.”
“It was like learning from a master and then finding my own way,” he said.
A “choreographic poem for orchestra,” “La Valse” was written by Ravel for the Ballets Russes two years after the end of World War I but was never produced by that legendary company. The vortex-like trajectory of its waltz-themed music has been described as a metaphor for the destruction of old imperial Europe in the aftermath of the war.
“Ravel takes the Vienna waltz and twists it until it explodes at the end,” said Rioult, who is among those who see it as a “metaphor for a society being taken into a whirlpool of violence and shredded … a very intricate piece physically and emotionally.”
Though as a Frenchman, it vividly reminds him of the Nazi period, Rioult does not consider “Wein” a period piece but finds multiple other modern-day analogies, including what is now happening in Syria.
“I don’t put it at the end of program,” he said, “because of the feelings it leaves you with.”
In contrast, while Rioult’s choreography for “Wein” is very expressionistic, his interpretation of Ravel’s “Bolero” is a purely abstract piece and its patterns are most striking seen from above.
“In the cheap seats, you get a better view; in the first row you get sweat,” Rioult said only half joking. You could almost picture him grinning on the other side of the phone.
Perhaps Ravel’s most famous and incessantly played work, Rioult said his challenge was “how to top that,” how to do something new.
He said he took his cue from a famous, repeated phrase in “Bolero,” which is famed for its crescendo. While Ravel had hundreds of musicians, he has choreographed for only eight dancers. So, he needed to find a way to build that crescendo, that intensity.
What he did was to build up the energy and movement by building up the intricacy of the patterns, creating a “dancing machine that starts slowly and revs up and revs up.”
Extremely demanding, Rioult’s “Bolero” is made up of 17 variations on Ravel’s crescendo. “My dancers said no way,” he recalled, “but they do it. It’s a real tour de force physically.”
After working for more than three years with Ravel and four years on a Stravinsky program, Rioult gravitated to the ultimate challenge, Bach.
“Celestial Tides,” choreographed to Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 6,” in Rioult’s hands is a pure dance piece, done “for the pure joy of the body moving in space and time.”
Opening the Mason evening, Rioult describes it as celebrating the excitement and beauty of both dance and life itself.
A kind of double duet, while it has no sexual content, it has great sensuality and male vulnerability, he suggested.
Its name, “Celestial Tides,” he said, references the movement of the planets and “Bach’s divine harmony.”
In the fourth piece in the Mason program, “Distant Shore,” the dance came first and inspired the music.
Although set to a commissioned piece of modern music, “Distant Shore,” like the works of Graham, evokes ancient myths. Inspired by Helen of Troy and the great warriors of the Trojan War—Achilles and Ajax, Paris and Hector, “Distant Shore” is “a fantasy voyage … a piece about redemption.”
Also, perhaps, setting the record straight, Helen, Rioult suggested, takes a bad rap and was used by men as a pretext to go to war. He wondered, “What if these great warriors had lived [rather than died] for her.”
An impressionistic dance piece, Rioult said “Distant Shore” is very sensual, a piece with a strong emotional undercurrent.
Among Rioult’s missions — the man and his company — is educational outreach. In keeping with that, though not open to the public, Rioult will be teaching a masterclass for the dancers in Mason’s School of Dance on March 7.
Rioult also will be conducting the pre-performance discussion before his company’s dance performance. This talk is open to the public.
“Modern dance has a bad reputation … so we do outreach very often,” he said. “Demystifying the genre is important.”