By LAUREN KAY
French choreographer Pascal Rioult has been fascinated with Greek mythology for decades. He not only delved into the stories academically as a teenager, but also as a principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company (the great lady of modern dance was a myth-ophile, too).
Now, with his contemporary company RIOULT, he's tackling the narrative depth of his beloved genre with Iphigenia, which appears at the Joyce Theater from June 4-9.
Rioult is thrilled to create his own version of the story about Agamemnon's daughter, who is miraculously saved moments before Agamemnon sacrifices her to the goddess Artemis. "I've been thinking about this piece for 30 years," says Rioult, with a laugh. "I've always been fascinated by this young girl, Iphigenia, fighting for her life and her transfiguration. After not wanting to die at a young age, she realizes the only way to have a decent ending is to decide, on her own, that's she'll willingly be sacrificed. She morphs from an innocent girl to a pleading young woman to a hero. She is stronger at the end than everyone around her; it's inspiring."
While Rioult investigated Greek mythology abstractly with a dreamy piece about Helen of Troy in 2011, this current, drastic move to storytelling has been challenging for a variety of reasons: Most obviously, it's a dance with a storyline, which demands a specific set of artistic choices. It also involves a live narrator and is staged in the round on a deck reminiscent of Greek amphitheaters. Plus, Rioult collaborated with composer Michael Torke to create new music for the piece as part of his Dance to Contemporary Composers series.
"This is totally foreign to me," Rioult says. "And my dancers, who are modern dancers of mostly abstract work, are being asked to portray characters. It's new to us all!"
To juggle the variables, Rioult started simply. First, he met with Torke, whose work he enjoyed for its dance-friendly qualities, to discuss the story and structure. "I decided I would have the four main characters dance to music with high dramatic moments and then use my other dancers as a Greek chorus, with narrations and gestural movement," Rioult explains. "We came to the conclusion that for the composer, it was similar to an opera, with arias for the principals and a live, female narrator for the chorus. It's very clearly separated."
Torke was willing to accommodate Rioult's choreographic needs, but there were moments, like Iphigenia's climactic transformation, that proved difficult. "We didn't totally agree on what it should be, but I wanted to wait until I got there in the dancemaking to decide," says Rioult. "When I wasn't convinced of his gentle take on the moment, I took the challenge to use the music anyway. It forced me to find how to show that dramatic moment choreographically. I've done so with a triangle of the other characters fighting about her, which she physically breaks up. It pushed me to work harder."
Rioult also created directly on the performers themselves. "I choreographed chronologically so that I could see, naturally, how they build and what the vocabulary of these characters would be. I wanted to make sure it was different than my regular work in terms of movement."
For the character of Iphigenia, this meant looking to dancer Jane Sato for inspiration. "I asked her to put on her own young, hip, club-like music," he says. "At first she was trying to be proper, but then I encouraged her to let loose. Once she did, I choreographed based on her instincts. That's how we found the right vocabulary that gave her a personality based on what I saw. It made it much more relevant."
Now that the piece is debuting at the Joyce, Rioult is anxiously awaiting the finished product. Regardless, he's pleased to push his own artistic boundaries, admitting that without this attempt, his artistry suffers. "If I keep doing things that are easy and usual to me, it's great, but it's not growing as an artist," he says. "I have to challenge myself to do something different, and this is it! It's difficult because I'm a choreographer, not a theatre director, so a lot of this is foreign to me. But that's what art is: working creatively with the limitations you give yourself, like the score, the round setting, and dramatic storyline. It makes you think---and grow."
Lauren Kay is a writer and dancer based in New York City.
Photo of RIOULT dancer Charis Haines by Sofia Negron