City Orfeo," "Les Noces," "Firebird"
There are any number of ways to organize a program, and while it may not necessarily have been Pascal Rioult's intention, the order in which he presented the three dances on his recent Joyce Theater program made for a journey from weakest to strongest—which is certainly preferable to the reverse. In recent years, Rioult's choreography has featured an intense focus on the music of Ravel, followed by a shift in 2003 to Stravinsky. His two most recent interpretations of the seminal Russian composer's scores were included n this program, but it opened with a work-in-progress that clearly represents a major shift for Rioult.
"Kansas City Orfeo," identified as an excerpt from a projected longer work, was an attempt to set the Orpheus myth within the jazz-flavored prohibition-era Kansas City. Not only did Rioult alternate live period jazz music from with recorded sections from Gluck's opera (some of it indelibly associated with Balanchine's "Chaconne"), he added heavy-handed voice-overs to the mix, and was not successful in clarifying the connection between the tortured "Orfeo Now," whose retrospective regret came to live accompanied by the Gluck music, and the optimistic, eager "Orfeo Then" who dove into the jazzy nightlife and dangerous temptations of Kansas City.
The solidly built choreographer, moving economically but with concentrated passion, portrayed the present-day version, isolated in some sparsely furnished limbo, while lanky Carlos Molina of the Boston Ballet portrayed his younger self. The busy scenario had him falling for a nightclub performer, who of course is under the thumb of a gangster-like boss. It's an attachment that can only lead to trouble, but our hero seems to plunge naively into the dangers of a world he is not ready to understand. At times, the goings-on reverberated with echoes of "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue." It was brave of Rioult to test out this material, and hopefully seeing it onstage will assist him as he develops the project further. This time around, the best part of it was the searing 1930s jazz music (Count Basie, Jelly Roll Morton and others) performed live by the excellent 10-member Juilliard Jazz Ensemble.
Rioult's week at the Joyce coincided with ABT's Fokine program, and while restagings of four seminal works introduced by the Diaghilev's Ballet Russe were onstage at the Met, the Joyce was host to Rioult's radically re-imagined versions of two others. His new "Les Noces," performed to a recording of the score sung in French, includes a few momentary allusions to the Nijinska original, and keeps the four women and four men quite separate until well into the piece, but this is a purely contemporary, and not very resonant, take on the score. The focus is one generalized—and thus presumably universal—sexual tension and mating rituals, rather than on a society's preparation for the uniting of a particular couple.
The women, with lose hair, are stage right, wearing quite bras and briefs with faint black patterning, maneuvering on and around four chairs with muscular, determined vigor. They eventually add a camisole-like layer so that they look a bit less vulnerable, but their movement continues to be robotic, and they seemed to be programmed, as though robbed of their free will.
The men, when the lights reveal them stage left, occupy the stage right half of the space, and are wearing just white briefs. Muscular and fervent, they stride like athletes in slow motion, but also seem ill at ease with their bodies. They begin to add more layers (various items are cleverly placed, sometimes out of view, so that they can smoothly put them on) so that by the time everyone meets up and the invisible dividing line is erased, the men have one backless white vests and black pants. The partnering is joyless, and the men display much enthusiasm for, or fascination with, the women. The pairing up—much of it arranged around the chairs, which are sometimes placed in two facing lines—is joyless and dutiful.
Rioult's "Firebird," first seen in 2003 but new to me, bravely makes a sweet blond ten-year-old into the analog of the magical bird. Wielding tow large green peacock feathers—they serve as both an evocation of wings and as magic wands, and seem to both protect and shelter her—she calmly enters a world inhabited by an eight-member tribe of taut, clenched, inward-looking people. Initially, they wear black skullcaps and charcoal-grey leotards with criss-crossed black strips wrapped around. Their contained, punchy movement and lurching manner suggested a cross between the timeless society of Paul Taylor's "Musical Offering" and his "Three Epitaphs." Rioult's experience performing in Martha Graham's choreography is most clearly reflected in this work, in the way the dancers twist and express tension through their torsos.
Hannah Burnette Cullen, the precocious and poised young girl who attempts to lead them toward a more hopeful path, has long legs and an unaffectedly graceful way of moving. Rioult gives her mostly skips and simple, almost natural movements, but presents her as a spirit of hopefulness, a counterpoint to the dark, disturbing society. The idea of "a little child shall lead them" seems to invite a treacly, clichéd scenario, but Rioult has the courage of his convictions and manages to skirt around the more obvious perils of the set-up.
Soon, the skullcaps have disappeared and the stiffly uptight creatures acquire a degree of individuality. The impressive set—simple, but stark, evoking caves and promontories—and the way it alters and is lit—plays a helpful role in the journey that is taking place. Rioult finds his own path through the familiar score, but sometimes his effects are heavy handed. When the dancers have paired up, and each woman is wrapped horizontally around a man, you can sense that they will be dropped, as they are just as the music hits a powerful chord. He does display a strong sense of craftsmanship and purpose, but doesn't quite manage to pt on stage the dramatic urgency that he seems to be aiming for, and that the music evokes. That final shimmering portion of the score practically spells out "apotheosis," and we don't get one here.