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Choreographer takes innovative steps

| Thursday, April 20, 2006

The music of Maurice Ravel has been good to Pascal Rioult. The choreographer's 1995 staging of "La Valse" made people take note of a new dynamic and innovative voice in dance, and remains at the center of his company's work to this day.

When Pascal Rioult Dance Theatre makes its local premiere at the Byham Theater this weekend, "La Valse" will be one of several pieces by the French composer on a program titled "The Ravel Project."

"I have a lot of affinity with a lot of classical music," Rioult says, "but with Ravel my feelings are akin to being his brother. To me, his music takes you to a lot of wonderful places, a very colorful and a wild journey that at the same time has a very strong path, a sense of direction that seems right, so that you land on your feet."

The French choreographer was born in Normandy and earned a masters degree in science education from the University of Paris before winning a fellowship from the French Ministry of Culture to study dance in New York City. After performing with two smaller troupes, he joined the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1986 and became a principal dancer for the iconic American choreographer.

"I worked with Martha Graham on many of her masterpieces, but as a Frenchman the one piece I couldn't get was 'Appalachian Spring,'" he says, speaking of her famous staging of Aaron Copland's ballet score. "It took me years (to get it) because I had no sense of the vastness of the possibilities of the land and the pioneer characters."

Rioult is more interested in the essence of Graham's technique than any particular movements.

"I believe in the same principle of where technique comes from -- that movement doesn't lie. Movement must have a strong emotional and psychological basis and not happen by itself or for its own sake. It is the undertone or overtone of the spiritual drama," he says.

Graham also showed Rioult what it means to be an artist.

"She was already old when I danced with her. The urgency with which she worked meant that nothing in her past life or future seemed to be important, only what she was doing in the moment with the dancer. It seemed picturesque then," he says, "but now I understand the urgency that what you do in the moment consumes you."

Rioult says he also learned a lot about his craft from close study of the way Ravel worked, and appreciates such paradoxes as the way being fastidious can contribute to feelings of freedom and fantasy. After three years, Rioult produced "The Ravel Project" in 2002, which The New York Times called "one of the most original dance programs of the season."

"I like to say I feel I understand the man through his music," Rioult says. "Ravel was such an incredible mix of tenderness and at the same time strength and wildness. Not wildness in the sense of a wild personality but wild inside. He was actually very proper and gentle, outwardly."

Rioult's next project, his first family piece, will be Ravel again, a staging of the opera "L'enfant et les sortileges" ("The Child and the Enchantments") that was brilliantly performed in concert by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Lorin Maazel in November 1992.

The choreographer, who hasn't shied away from the challenge of resetting music and stories made famous by his predecessors such as George Balanchine, sees himself in the process of historical development.

"Just as neoclassicism transformed 19th-century ballet vocabulary, I am trying to do the same thing right now with modern dance," Rioult says. "Coming from Graham and that period, I am trying to take this form and transform it to my own style and to make it more contemporary."

Additional Information:

'The Ravel Project'

Performed by: Pascal Rioult Dance Theatre

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Admission: $19-$38

Where: Byham Theater, Downtown

Details: 412-456-6666

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