Performing Arts: Dance
February 17, 2014
Valentine’s weekend entailed a celebration of a specific kind of love – that which exists between mentor and disciple, built on the shared love of a discipline, bearing its own fruit. This is how Pascal Rioult has chosen to commemorate twenty years with his company. Dubbed “Martha, May, and Me,” the program at the 92 Street Y was a stripped-down preview for the upcoming Joyce season; nevertheless, this performance was its own entity. In the intimate space of Buttenwieser Hall, where Rioult’s earliest work was test-driven, you experience what the Joyce conceals – the life of every breath, the effort of every muscle fiber, and the palpable balance of nervousness and confidence as this generation of dancers tries on the traditions of generations past.

Beginning with May O’Donnell’s Suspension, first shown at Harkness in 1945, a strict vocabulary of diagonals is dispersed between seven bodies, clad in blues. When they meet in sculptural partnering, slanted limbs shift onto axis. The excerpt illustrates a journey in visual harmony from intricate counterpoint through forceful dissonance to transparent consonance as motifs are juggled spatially until they find their right match.

Next was the 1995 Rioult staple Wien, from which Pascal credits learning his craft. When juxtaposed with O’Donnell, compositional similarities emerge. There is a similar looping exposition of idiosyncratic gesture, but soon after, Rioult establishes a more symbolic spatial sensibility than his mentor’s formalism. New developments loyally decay into a clockwise group skidder, from which dancers beg the audience for sympathy, only to be shoved back into high society samsara. The interpretation of Ravel’s La Valse is masterful but lends itself to occasionally premature transitions.

Following intermission was an excerpt from Martha Graham’s 1940 play within a play, El Penitente. Each role was nourished individually by an artist who had played it before, Rioult coaching a stern and expansive Michael S. Phillips as the Christ Figure, former Graham dancer Ken Topping channeling Jere Hunt’s inner Eric Hawkins for the boyish curiosity and self-flagellating shame of the Penitent, and Associate Artistic Director Joyce Herring drawing out immaculate but forbidden grace from Charis Haines as Mary, Virgin, Magdalen, and Mother. The care and craft in setting the work was wholly apparent – focus and precision was at its highest level of the evening and never faltered.

Concluding the celebration were excerpts from Rioult’s 2008 Views of the Fleeting World, a piece that suffers from precisely what makes Wien so strong. Entirely to Bach’s Art of the Fugue, dances begin offering movement counterparts to what is arguably the most complex of musical forms, but when the movement has no more to say, it meanders on as decoration until the harmonic dramas resolve. The one section avoiding this trap is “Moonlight.” Rioult decides to represent Bach’s contrapuntal glory not with form, but with emotional imagery of comparable complexity – Sara E. Seger and Brian Flynn transition together from lying to standing, accumulating dimensional pathos through every level in-between.

A panel discussion followed, led by EYE ON DANCE creator and moderator, Celia Ipiotis. Nancy Lushington, one of the regisseurs of the O’Donnell, joined Topping, Herring, and Rioult in an enlightening discussion on the process of both setting repertoire and making new work that is true to one’s lineage without seeming derivative. Rioult’s solution is digging deeper, pulling from the essences of Graham and O’Donnell and avoiding a superficial mimicry of formal devices. This "genetic pool party" program, for one, makes that quite clear. A voice like Pascal Rioult’s is highly necessary in dance today. His approach to enlivening history is by no means curatorial; the repertoire and technique his dancers perform are not artifacts but shifting spirits, never without the ability to transform.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews

©2001 Eye and Dance and the Arts | All Rights Reserved