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Ravishing Ravel: Pascal Rioult Dance Company.

The French Way
By Mae G. Banner

Pascal Rioult Dance Company

The Egg, Nov. 4

Pascal Rioult set himself a double challenge in last Friday’s all-Ravel dance concert at the Egg. First, he had to bring variety to what might have been a monochromatic show. Second, he had to find new interpretations for music that many others have choreographed before him.

Fortunately for the hard to please, Rioult proved that Ravel’s wonderful music can support new choreographic ideas. His Home Front (2000) was sportive and light, but with a dramatic undercurrent—quite a contrast to the playful mirror images of Balanchine’s square dance-like Le Tombeau de Couperin to the same music.

And, though Balanchine’s La Valse remains the definitive statement on a society plunging into decadence, Rioult’s Wien (1995) ups the ante to create a clump of oppressed pseudo-revelers who literally dance themselves to death. Where Balanchine focused on the personal, Rioult makes the demonic waltz political.

These two dances opened a program that was marked by imaginative choreographic structures infused with a mathematical sense of order. Rioult brings together symmetry and asymmetry so that his dances are never predictable. For example, the four women of Home Front, circling and unwinding in dresses blue as a Provencal sky, were followed by three burly fellows who raised their fists and knocked each other down in music hall fashion. A woman in red provided further contrast, and may have been a figure of death.

In Wien, the six dancers moved as a unit, taking small, flat-footed, sometimes fearful steps, keeping their shoulders hunched. Shadowy lighting and street clothes in a palette of black, gray and white underscored the sense of doom that grew with the escalating mania of Ravel’s waltz.

A native of Normandy, Rioult joined the Martha Graham company in 1986 and began choreographing in 1989. His work with Graham has given his choreography a dramatic edge, even when the music is impressionistic.

Rioult’s programmatic dance Prelude to Night (2002) is choreographed in three parts. The outer sections are to music from Rapsodie Espagnole and the heart of the dance is from Alborada del Gracioso. Penelope Gonzales made the journey from a surreal imprisonment (a white-coated doctor figure put a studious finger to his chin; his colleagues held her as she struggled to break free) through a dangerous passage into the unknown, surrounded by bare-chested men wearing white, long-nosed Venetian masks, and finally emerged to dance alone in the light, her arms raised deliciously.

The final dance, Bolero (2002), presented the greatest choreographic challenge, if only because the music is so well-known. Other choreographers, notably Lar Lubovitch, have made it a rich display of sexuality, a couple dance comparable to the Kama Sutra. Rioult takes a completely opposite approach. His Bolero is an ensemble dance that illuminates Ravel’s musical structure.

Set before a cubist cityscape in many shades of gray, the eight dancers began in near-stillness, in a jagged cluster, moving only their arms and occasionally thrusting a hip, always at a stiff angle. My eyes were led to one dancer, then another, as each stepped slightly forward and added a bit more to the accumulating movement phrase, then faded back into the always minimally moving ensemble. There might be a pivot or a couple of steps to the side, but the underlying momentum prevailed.

Rioult’s choreography was disciplined and ingenious in its opposition of angled, wooden arms to Ravel’s sinuous melody. The contrast works. It kept my eyes riveted to the dancers to see which one would step forward to do something new and how they would melt back into the whole.

Like the music, the dancers’ stylized poses and studied minimalism changed so gradually that the dancers never lost their spatial relation to each other and to the wider stage space. So, it was startling when at last the bodies separated to become a circle that whirled and thrust one, then another into the center. Now, geometry began to keep company with voluptuous swirls, matching the structure of the music to the final great crescendo.

Tell Me a Story

Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company

The Egg, Nov. 6

An engaging storyteller and a percussionist for all seasons joined the Ellen Sinopoli dancers in a Sunday afternoon program that, as Goldilocks would say, was “just right.”

In a smoothly-paced hour, the audience of about 150 kids and their families were treated to folktales from Brazil, Russia, the Antilles Islands, and a Northwest Native American story about how Coyote steals Spring. Storyteller Pleasant DeSpain, a recent arrival from Arizona, was sometimes accompanied by an ebullient Brian Melick, sometimes by Sinopoli’s five limber dancers, and sometimes only by the audience, who DeSpain gently encouraged to help him out with a collective chant or gesture.

Well-wrought tales and shimmering musical lines lifted Sinopoli’s scaled down choreography to a pleasant plateau. All the elements, including clean-lined costumes by Kim Vanyo, cohered nicely.

Animal Rhythms, danced in black knee-length pants and leaf-printed tunics, presented giraffes with long upraised arms, lumbering gibbons with humped shoulders, and gazelles who flew about the small stage and jumped off and raced out of the theater.

Make Way for the Segue, a premiere, showed the dancers moving as one in a vine-like line, bending from the waist in profile to make a sturdy garden wall, or waving their arms, one after the other, like branches in the wind. This was tight, orderly choreography, shapely and easy to read. Working in a small space led to well-designed dances.

The best was another premiere, Dance Granny Dance, which brought together all the elements: storyteller, percussionist and dancers in a West Indian tale about the trickster Anansi the Spider. Sinopoli used the whole theater, from the top row to the back stage curtain to dance this story. It was fun to see three grandmothers (Melissa George, Yukiko Sumiya and Laura Teeter) all miming together in their calico print dresses and lacy sweaters, as they danced to market and home to sell their vegetables.

We first saw Anansi as a pair of sharp- fingered hands emerging from the back curtain. These were followed by the arms and legs of Ann Olson and Sarah Pingel, the two tallest dancers in the company, dressed in unitards of pied purple and black. A neat idea to present two dancers—eight arms and legs in all—as the spider.

Granny was an exuberant finale to a well-planned program. We talk about building audiences of the future. Shows like the Egg’s family series are the building blocks.

—Mae G. Banner


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