Lorena Egan (standing) and Penelope Gonazlez of RIOULT Dance NY in 'Black Diamond'.  Photo © Richard Termine

Lorena Egan (standing) and Penelope Gonazlez of RIOULT Dance NY in ‘Black Diamond’.
Photo © Richard Termine

The Joyce Theater, New York, NY; June 19, 2014

Jerry Hochman

Any dance company, particularly a modern dance company, that has endured for twenty years must be doing something right. RIOULT Dance NY is.

Founded by Pascal Rioult and his wife, Joyce Herring, both former dancers with the Martha Graham Dance Company, the company celebrated its 20th anniversary with two programs at the Joyce. The one I saw (which convinced me that I should have allowed time to see the other) was stimulating and entertaining. The company’s dancers include fabulous technicians and performers. While the choreography appears more retro than cutting edge, that’s not a deficiency. Presenting interesting, creative, and entertaining dances is more important than how they’re labelled, and that RIOULT Dance NY does.

“Martha, May & Me” paid tribute to two of Mr. Rioult’s primary choreographic influences, and correlated them with examples from his work. I found it fascinating.

May O’Donnell was a dancer and choreographer primarily located in San Francisco and New York during the 1930s through the 1980s. A former dancer with the Martha Graham Company in the late 1930s and again as a guest artist from 1944 to 1952, she created several iconic roles. On her own, she choreographed some 50 dances, and created the May O’Donnell Concert Dance Company in 1974. She died in 2004, aged 97.

Ms. O’Donnell was known for progressive pieces that explored the movement of bodies through time and space, and some have described her work as a precursor to that of Merce Cunningham. To me, Cunningham’s such exploration of bodies may be interesting academically, but has little entertainment value. Despite this admitted prejudice, I found Ms. O’Donnell’s classic “Suspension”, created in 1943, to be a superb dance, and the Rioult dancers provided an equally superb performance of it.

Choreographed to a composition by Ms. O’Donnell’s husband, Ray Green, “Suspension” certainly explores the movement of bodies through time and space, but it does so in a way that is mesmerizing rather than merely cerebral. It was reportedly inspired by her view of a flying airplane from a hilltop. But just as “Jewels” is more than what George Balanchine saw displayed in a Van Cleef & Arpels store window, “Suspension” is more than watching propeller blades. The dancers in it may be bodies moving in space, but they’re human bodies, with natural human sensibilities. It is not simply an amorphous agglomeration of empty vessels.

May O'Donnell Concert Dance Comapny: Suspension

May O’Donnell Concert Dance Company in Suspension at Jacob’s Pillow in 1977.
Photo John Van Lund, courtesy Rioult Dance NY

I suspect that what I’ve just written is anathema to modern dance purists, but since my viewing tends more to ballet, perhaps I see modern dance pieces differently, and we all ‘see’ to some extent through the prism of what we have been exposed to previously. To me, “Suspension” has a kinship to Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Monotones” in terms of bodies moving through space, but they do so in a way that’s more than just robotic motion; they move with precision, as if ordered by a greater force.

Regardless of what it’s ‘supposed’ to say, “Suspension” is fascinating and entertaining not just as a result of the choreography, but as a result of the performances, and particularly that of Sara E. Seger, who danced exclusively on top of, to and from, and around, two different sized box-shaped platforms. I don’t know whether the role she played was supposed to represent this controlling force, an observer of the harmonic and choreographic order below, or nothing at all. It doesn’t matter. Her dance, and her movement quality, was not just a movement exercise. Her portrayal was commanding and inherently sensual, the choreography requiring her to appear both exceptionally flexible and yet hard as a rock.

Mr. Rioult has said that his 2003 piece, “Black Diamond,” illustrates his choreographic debt to Ms. O’Donnell. A duet of sorts involving two women in identical black costumes (part solid fabric, part mesh), powerful movement quality, and stunning staging and lighting, it certainly reflects her influence. But it also stands on its own as a superb piece of dance theater – even without a discernible plot. Charis Haines and Jane Sato appeared as fraternal twins, sometimes dancing in tandem, sometimes not, sometimes together and sometimes individually, sometimes on raised levels and sometimes on stage, but at all times with extraordinary grace and power – rare performing combinations.

“Black Diamond” is danced to Stravinsky’s “Duo Concertant”, although Mr. Rioult’s dance has no visual relationship to Balanchine’s ballet of the same name, except that both involve two dancers and parts of the same score. Like “Suspension”, it is mesmerizing and entertaining, with an overriding concept that doesn’t so much dominate it as provide it with a stimulating visual and choreographic environment. I don’t know whether the dancers were intended to represent female forces, or forces that just happened to be danced by females, or simply objects with multiple facets that uniquely sparkle as they reflect light, or none of the above, but I found the work not only interesting choreographically, but, like “Suspension,” remarkably sensual.

The Graham piece danced, and another by Mr. Rioult reflecting her influence was less successful, although I still admired the dancers’ work enormously.

Martha Graham Dance Company in 'El Penitente' in 2004. Photo © Marco Caselli

Martha Graham Dance Company in ‘El Penitente’ in 2004.
Photo © Marco Caselli

Graham’s “El Penitente”, was created in 1940 to a score by Louis Horst and sets by Isamu Noguchi, both frequent collaborators of hers. I find most Graham dances compelling, powerful and entertaining, regardless of the subject matter, but this is not one of my favorites. It’s neither fish nor fowl, neither a visual description of a sacred religious practice by a southwestern sect (the “Penitentes”), nor a commentary on it. Indeed, by its depiction of a religious practice that seeks purification through personal penitence within the context of the reenactment of New Testament scenes, and then celebrates the folk tradition that this ritual became, it’s more like a commentary on a commentary. Be that as it may, its structure – a trio of dancer/players portraying Jesus Christ, a penitent, and a Mary Magdalene/Mother figure in a series of episodes culled from a larger ‘original’ ritual act of penitence, is fascinating in its simple yet inventive stagecraft and its dry, southwestern ambiance. It’s a little like a Passion Play performed in the arid plains of Arizona by a trio of commedia dell’arte players (just a little – save your emails).

While I’m not a fan of the piece, the cast was first rate. Jere Hunt’s self-flagellating penitent and Michael S. Phillips’s enigmatic Christ Figure were richly developed, and Ms. Haines was deliciously intriguing, ascetic, and seductive as ‘Mary as Virgin, Magdalen, Mother’, incorporating, in varying degrees, all three qualities into each. The three of them performed the work as well, if not better, than I’ve previously seen.

In a filmed introduction to “El Penitente”, Mr. Rioult emphasized the significance of Ms. Graham’s approach to transitions from scene to scene. Bu in his “Views of the Fleeting World”, I failed to see the connection with her work. Although there were individually connected ‘episodes’, as in “El Penitente”, transitions from one to another were more a matter of changing the image projected onto a screen or scrim that spanned the entire backstage wall than the transitional geometric patterns in the Graham piece.

Jane Sato in 'Views of the Fleeting World'.  Photo © Basil Childers

Jere Hunt and Charis Haines in ‘Views of the Fleeting World’ .
Photo © Sofia Negron

Sara E. Seger in 'Views of the Fleeting World'.  Photo © Sofia Negron

Sara E. Seger in ‘Views of the Fleeting World’.
Photo © Sofia Negron

Danced to Bach’s “The Art of Fugue”, “Views of the Fleeting World”, is a paean to the natural world and the natural life in it. It’s divided into seven parts, the first three and last of which (‘Orchard’, ‘Gathering Storm’, and ‘Wild Horses’, and ‘Floating River’), include most members of the cast, while the others are duets. The ensemble work was well executed, but not particularly memorable. The three duets were all distinctive and skillfully performed, however. I particularly liked the final duet, ‘Moonlight’, danced by Ms. Seger and Brian Flynn, who essentially dance a visualization of love under the moonlight (in the grass, on the beach, whatever) on their backs, except when she straddles her partner. It sounds erotic, and it is, but it’s done with taste, and the dancers brought out the passion inherent in the choreography without undue embellishment. The other duets, ‘Dusk’ (Marianna Tsartolia and Mr. Phillips) and ‘Summer Wind’ (Ms. Haines and Mr. Hunt) were nicely done as well. ‘Dusk’ is perhaps a prequel to ‘Moonlight’, but with more aggressive movement and somewhat dark undertones, and ‘Summer Wind’ propels the stage relationship more forcefully. Both couples executed the serviceable choreography dramatically and expressively, and with no melodramatic excess.

I’d not seen Rioult Dance NY before, but based on this performance, I’ll look forward to seeing the company again during its next twenty years.