On May 17, 2019, the New York-based modern dance company, RIOULT Dance NY, opened at the Ailey Citigroup Theater. Included in their New York Season were three works, including a world premier inspired by the short stories of American author, Joyce Carol Oates.
Bodies Never Lie had the great privilege of attending a company rehearsal for the new work and speaking with RIOULT Artistic Director and choreographer, Pascal Rioult, before the opening at their beautiful new studio space in Queens.
This was especially enjoyable as I was invited to review their New York Season last summer and their concert was one of my personal favorites I have seen from any company in New York. However, the works from last summer were very abstract and I was curious to see how the choreographer and dancers were approaching the challenge of storytelling and literary inspiration through dance.
We went into a sunlit studio and talked about the challenge of telling narrative stories, bringing out new qualities in his work and with the dancers, selecting specific stories and music. Rioult described a desire to show how it is hard to ever truly know a person, and that “evil can come from people who you would least expect to act this way”. Besides the question of how well it is possible to know someone, another concept of the piece seemed to be if human beings are more frightening when we are strangers to each other or more terrifying when we see each other for who we are and what we are capable of.
The program opened with The Violet Hour, an abstract work inspired by the poetry of T.S. Eliot. This seems to be popular nowadays. Set to music by Joan Tower , the dancers wore flesh-colored androgynous tank tops and shorts by costumer Maria Garcia/ The work represents the transitions between day and night, reality and dream, memory and desire. The transitional theme was made especially clear with lighting by Clifton Taylor, beautifully beaming warm yellows from stage left as the dancers walked with tension, focus, and blank faces into the light, fading into the wings, emerging again from stage right in a continuous cycle.
The choreography was everything that one can expect from a Rioult group piece; meaning there was much to take in with structure, partnering, and detail. Interesting relationships between the dancers took form with couples, contrasted by isolated dancers in the same movement without a partner. A few dancers made screaming facial expressions as they were lifted, a solo male standing and silently mouthing words as if giving a speech. In these moments, it seemed like we the audience were supposed to notice something whereas the majority of the piece felt like a droning albeit beautiful wash. The piece was intricate, with demanding weight-sharing and clear consideration of spatial relationship between dancers and within the landscape of the stage. Nothing about the work was repetitive with the exception of the thematic use of space, the travel from one side of the stage to the next. The piece represents endless journey in a barren wasteland, which poses a challenge to create something with emotional resonance and perhaps this was not the goal. While it was aesthetically interesting, beautifully made and fantastically danced, the most memorable moments were the few times a glimmer of humanity shone through.
Second on the program was the world premiere of Trangressions, Four Short Stories inspired by the works of American author, Joyce Carol Oates, who was also in attendance at the concert.
Each of these vignettes included music from American composers. They offered a glimpse into various forms of violence and manipulation. Occasionally this was shown through dance with obvious kicking or slapping movements. The most interesting showcase was through the use of blackout and quick tableau changes in Disappeared. The series of pictures before dancer Corinna Lee Nicholson lies crumpled, eyes wide open, at the feet of Sabatino A. Verlezza provided clear clues as to what transpired but let negative spaces for the audience to fill in the blanks from one picture to the next. It is so often the case that what we can invent as humans is worse, more terrifying, than the reality and this movement was especially powerful in forcing the audience to activate our darkest imaginations.
In the final of the four, Seduced, dancer Charis Haines was serpentine and suave next to Sara Elizabeth Seger’s nervous and naïve portrayal. This relationship was curious to see unfold, Haines’ charm luring in Seger’s shy character, through a full slap in the face, when Seger eventually walked away. It’s clear that the audience was supposed to feel sympathy for Seger, the abused in this scenario but I at least, did not. The sumptuous grace and utter coolness of Haines in contrast to the dorky clinging from Seger caused me to forgive even her violent transgressions. This final piece held up a mirror to my own ability to be seduced by beauty, to turn a blind eye to the power plays of violence.
Being able to see a rehearsal of Transgressions before the actual performance, I was excited to see what new things I would notice, what would be clearer upon a second glance. Often, the familiar in sights and sounds are easier to remember past the stage of initial introduction, perhaps offering a better platform for critique. I was surprised that each section left the same impression on me in theatrical mode as it did in the studio. In each section, there was clarity of storytelling without being prescriptive. Though it was easy to make assumptions about what has happened, a hard-enough feat in itself to portray through dance, the why remain lurking in murky waters. They look like villains or victims by their actions alone, with nothing of the psyche behind the movement. Each section was successful in elements of surprise, horror, and retaining an unknowable quality for who these characters really are. Having seen it twice did not provide a richer sense of sympathy or understanding. In this unknowable quality of emotion, the eloquent moving body is more inhuman, more powerful, surprising, and terrifying. Rioult Dance NY fully captured the writer’s challenge to ‘show versus tell’ a story.
Closing the program was a return of ‘Nostalghia’ which I covered last year but was thrilled to see again as it provoked different reactions from my previous viewing. The most memorable section to me is the percussive, rhythmic sequence with the heels stomping audibly on the ground, while the head and torso seem pushed and pulled off a balanced center of gravity. Especially eye-catching in this section was dancer Alexander Druzbanski, whose grounded physicality lent to the imagery of continuing about daily tasks, finding rhythm within the world that continues to spin on even after our own personal triumphs or tragedies. Was it really just seven years ago that my dad passed away from cancer? A year since I last saw this piece, a week since I finished the longest ballet I’ve ever produced? As with nostalgia itself, response might depend on the day. in this i don’t suppose there is right or wrong interpretation, there is only enjoyment of a beautiful piece that leaves a sort of ugly feeling. Nostalgia is neither good nor bad except for the effect that it has on our current lives and actions.
- RIOULT Dance NY last year at the Joyce, what a great show- Written for Dance
- The last time my dad saw me dance- Dance Against Cancer
More dance inspired by text? Help yourself!
- Jonathan Safran Foer, Paris Opera Ballet, and Wayne McGregor collaboration- Tree of Codes
- Inspired by the Comedy of George Carlin- 7 Words you can never say in ballet
- My summary of Russian fairy tale, ‘the Firebird’ is spot-on: Bird Ballets
We may not want to revisit the painful or pleasurable memories and experiences that threaten to or do keep us stuck, rooted in the past that continue to pop up and plague our behaviors ,choices, and lives. However, I could watch this beuatiful work again and again and again.