If Pascal Rioult had an archenemy, it might go by the name “Routine.” The evidence is in the variegated palette of works his modern dance company, Rioult, is bringing to George Mason’s Center for the Arts on Friday. The four pieces pinball from abstract to impressionistic and romanticism-tinged to architectural.
“The danger is to get comfortable and start to get into a groove that you cannot get out of,” says the French-born choreographer and former principal dancer with Martha Graham Dance Company.
The New York-based company’s Washington-area debut features a mixed repertory that spans the troupe’s nearly 20-year history, including the choreographer’s earliest work, “Wien,” set to Maurice Ravel’s “La Valse.” That piece was the first in a four-year, four-work examination of the French composer.
“We talk about how, by learning from the masters, a contemporary painter learns his craft,” Rioult says. “And I thought, if I learned from Ravel, who is considered one of the greatest composers in terms of composition — orchestral composition — I would probably learn a lot about my craft.”
The expressionistic, haunting “Wien” features six dancers who sometimes move with loose-limbed abandon and other times appear disturbingly puppet-like. The performers dance in circles, creating the feeling of a whirlpool and ultimately illustrating the chaos that plagued Vienna between World Wars I and II.
Even after completing “Wien,” Rioult says he wasn’t sure why he felt such a strong connection to Ravel’s music. But almost two decades of choreographing have offered some insights.
Ravel’s music “takes you basically on a wild ride, but somehow at the end of it, you feel like you’re home. You’re not lost,” he says. “It makes sense.”
That paradox defines not just Rioult’s choreography, but also his eclectic body of work, including the three other dances his company is performing at GMU — the abstract “Bolero,” “Celestial Tides” (“about the pure joy and beauty of dancing,” Rioult says) with music by Bach and “On Distant Shores,” a collaboration with contemporary composer Aaron Kernis.
Dancer Charis Haines says the variable nature of Rioult’s work begins in the rehearsal room.
“Every creative process that we go through with him is completely different,” she says. “Sometimes he knows exactly what he wants as far as steps go and timing and all of that, and sometimes he gives us sort of free reign to partner with each other and find some new things, and then he helps tweak it.”
For a more recent work, the choreographer ceded much control to the dancers, who improvised with T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” in mind. Before an early preview of the piece, Rioult offered a disclaimer about how experimental it would be among an already motley oeuvre.
“We did the piece, and to me it was so incredibly different; it didn’t look like anything I thought I would do,” he says. “And then one of the first comments from somebody who knows my work was, ‘You know, you’ve been saying how different it is and everything, but it’s really you.’ ”
But, for Rioult, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“As much as you try to vary your work, because I think it’s important . . . there is still a sense of the person who’s behind it,” he says. “There’s a soul, let’s call it that. It’s not gimmicky, it’s not just about pleasing the audience, it’s not doing something different just for the sake of it.”