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BWW Dance Review: RIOULT DANCE NY Conjures Shades of Valiant Women

Charis Haines in "On Distant Shores"
Choreographed by Pascal Rioult
Photo Credit: Sofia Negron

If "Ballet is Woman", then RIOULT Dance NY can easily respond that "So is Graham". Twenty-five years after the death of the mother of modern dance, it seems that her eponymous style is being kept alive in the companies of her former stars. Helmed by Artistic Director Pascal Rioult and his wife, Associate Director Joyce Herring, this company is currently celebrating its 22nd Season at the Joyce Theatre with a triptych of works inspired by Euripides' "The Trojan Women".

Program A - "WOMEN ON THE EDGE...Unsung Heroines of the Trojan War" - finds the company in splendid form. Featuring guest star Kathleen Turner as a narrator would seem an inspired choice. Unfortunately on June 21st she was in poor health. While worrisome and at times distracting, this did not diminish the evening of wonderful dance theater. It must be said: this is a company of brilliant women. The men, while strong movers, lack the raw physicality and plasticity that characterized Mr. Rioult's acclaimed dancing. Perhaps they are too muscle-bound; that would certainly explain their stiff torsos and inflexible pelvises.

RIOULT Dance NY in "Iphigenia"
Choreographed by Pascal Rioult
Photo Credit: Sofia Negron

Mr. Rioult is a compelling storyteller. In "Iphigenia" - which begins with a glimpse of the gruesome future - he confronts the tragedy head on by making it clear that the designated sacrifice is unaware of her fate. Watching Clytemnestra - Charis Haines, who handily walks away with the piece - batter a commanding Brian Flynn as Agamemnon reminds one that there is nothing so frightening as a mother whose child has been threatened. Iphigenia - a technically impeccable Catherine Cooch - remains a loving child even when confronted with her future. It was an odd performance choice; Ms. Cooch seemed perpetually trapped in happy ingénue land. Compounded with the disappointing ending, which found Iphigenia pleasantly resigned to her fate, this unbalanced an otherwise perfect ballet. Well, not completely perfect; Michael Torke's score does not work. It communicates that this is a heartwarming piece along the lines of "Marley of Me". Perhaps he was thrown by the ending. One wishes that it had been swapped out with the bone-chilling opening.

How strange then to discover that "On Distant Shores... a redemption fantasy" is choreographically outstanding; second acts rarely are. Four men lie on their backs while a projection of clouds is seen in the background. Cued by Aaron Jay Kernis' phenomenal score, these clouds fade and change color in tandem with the unfolding emotional rollercoaster ride. Enter Helen of Troy - the embarrassingly gorgeous Ms. Charis dressed in Pilar Limonsner's equally lustrous costume - who is caught in a purgatorium of fantasies. The four men are dead soldiers who reanimate to fulfill Helen's dream of what might have been had the Trojan War not been fought. The marvel of this ballet is that it never cheapens the tragedy. It is clear that Helen is delusional. For all we know, she is actually in a wasteland dancing with one corpse after another. Ms. Charis shows us that she is constantly being torn between her fantasy and reality. At the fever pitch a road of light appears, showing the way home. Helen's face goes slack as she follows this road reaching for something that was never there. "Out, damn'd spot."

Sara Elizabeth Seger in "Cassandra's Curse"
Choreographed by Pascal Rioult
Photo Credit: Eric Bandiero

"Cassandra's Curse" was not new to me; I covered its open rehearsal for this website with an enthusiastic review. Though it still stars the prodigiously talented Sara Elizabeth Seger - who dances with the fury of a banshee - elements of the production design managed to muffle her efforts. Watching this out of control spectacle I thought to myself, "How did Mr. Rioult manage to obscure the glory of this piece?" Answer: projected images that gilded the lily; semi-opaque moveable set pieces that were not nearly transparent enough; and a disjointed ending that buried the lede. For want of a nail, a kingdom was lost; for want of simplicity, a production was marred. During the open rehearsal - which did not feature these non-calibrated additions - Mr. Rioult described the fully produced "Cassandra" as his "four ring circus". In a moment that now seems prescient, an audience member commented that the unseen parts seemed gratuitous; all that mattered was Ms. Seger's dancing. Perhaps Cassandra was speaking through this man. I don't mean to savage this ballet. I admire what Mr. Rioult has attempted and admit that much of it is wonderful; Richard Danielpour's commissioned score - gorgeously played by Uptown Philharmonic - is a tremendous vehicle, the solo choreography is brilliant, the men's jumps were stratospheric, and Ms. Seger is nothing less than a revelation. Now if only "Cassandra" would return to the purity of what was presented at the open rehearsal.

In spite of its flaws, this concert is worth more than twice the cost of admission. RIOULT Dance NY continues its run at The Joyce Theater through June 26th, 2016. This program alternates with Program B, which features the New York City Premiere of Mr. Rioult's "Polymorphous". To purchase tickets or for more information, visit rioult.org or joyce.com.

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