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A Choreographer Revisits His Rock Roots

By: Susan Reiter
Date: May 25, 2017

Pascal Rioult debuts a new work set to the music he loved as a teen


For much of his choreographic career, Pascal Rioult gravitated toward major classical works: Mozart, Ravel, Bach, Stravinsky, even celebrated scores other choreographers had used. He welcomed the challenge of translating such iconic music into movement. But recently, he's been drawn to a radically different genre: the progressive rock he danced to in clubs as a French teenager, long before he considered pursuing the art form professionally.

This year, he decided it was time to return to the sounds that got him excited about dancing in the first place. So next week, as part of The Joyce Theater's Spring 2017 Series, his company RIOULT Dance NY will premiere Fire in the Sky set to four songs from the early 1970s by the British band Deep Purple.

"That music had been calling to me for a few years, but it was not something that I dared go into," Rioult says. "It was in the back of my mind. It's interesting, with this new piece, to go back to my first love of dancing -- now that I've had this whole career."

That career was launched when the former track and field athlete arrived in this country to study modern dance on a fellowship from the French Ministry of Culture. After performing with such respected modern choreographers as Paul Sanasardo and May O'Donnell, Rioult was invited to join the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1985.

His timing was serendipitous as he was present during the final years of Graham's life. The seminal choreographer was still creating new works, and Rioult even got to share the stage with Mikhail Baryshnikov, who made guest appearances.

Rioult began choreographing his own work while still with the troupe before setting out on his own in 1995. For his company's debut New York season, he did not shy away from imposing scores, choreographing to Ravel's La Valse and Arvo Pärt's Te Deum. A new staging of the latter shares the bill with Fire in the Sky. The combination, he realizes, has given him a unique opportunity to reflect on and reconsider his artistic past.

"For me, returning to Te Deum represents going back to a special and important time -- my beginning as a choreographer -- when I started my new career not knowing where I was going," he says. "It's a man searching for a new way, a new life, and looking at what he's leaving behind. It was very personal, which made it more difficult. Now I'm revisiting this 22 years later. So what does that mean now? I'm not so tortured, I don't feel so lost. I know now who I am as a choreographer, which I had no idea of then. But I'm still looking for answers. So in a sense both pieces on this program are bringing me back in time. They're about what dance means to me -- in two different ways."

For Fire in the Sky, Rioult's adolescent associations with the Deep Purple songs inspired him to go in unexpected directions. "There's greater freedom and looseness, less inhibition," he says. "It's also more about the pleasure of dancing."

At a recent rehearsal, the urgency and explosiveness of the choreography were evident. In one section, set to "Child in Time," an implacable, militaristic ensemble surrounded and threatened to overwhelm a vulnerable male figure.

"I wasn't interested in doing a period piece," Rioult insists. "What was interesting was to bring the spirit of that time, which is in the music, into the piece, not by trying to dance the way I used to in the '70s. It's more about the spirit of that time: people wanting to break the rules, have fun."

Since Rioult's dancers are in their twenties, he wondered if he would have to school them in retro rock. But he was surprised to discover they already knew and loved the music. "They had a fabulous time," he says. "They put a lot of themselves into it, and were able to really let loose a lot more than normally -- and so did I."


Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages

Top image: Fire in the Sky by RIOULT Dance NY. Photo by Sofia Negron.

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Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages.