When I was a kid, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes was a favorite of mine. I would read one chapter at a time, savoring the myths as dramatic treats to be consumed judiciously. After attending RIOULT at the Joyce Theater this past Thursday, I wholeheartedly offer this bit of precocious advice to director and choreographer Pascal Rioult, who programmed three short ballets of the Olympian variety back to back–apparently tragedies of such magnitude are best dealt with in moderation and restraint. Throwing such caution to the wind produced such an unbalanced and overwrought evening, the agony of which even his much-lauded and highly entertaining Bolero could not overcome.
The world premiere of Iphigenia opened the show and introduced the radiant Jane Sato, in the title role, to any members of the audience not already familiar with her versatile technique. This was not a tale I was familiar with (was this too obscure for Hamilton to include in her anthology?) but it follows the well worn path of a girl’s sacrifice to the angry gods and a mother’s subsequent rage. As one of many wrongs to be avenged, Clytemnestra would eventually kill Agamemnon for the betrayal of slaying their daughter, Iphigenia. But this ballet was concerned less with the more famous parents and more with the rather demure daughter. Filled out nicely with the small Camerata NY Orchestra playing a commissioned score by Michael Torke, a narration read with a requisite tone of doom by Jacqueline Chambord, an integrated set of scaffolding by Harry Feiner, and minimalist white costumes by Karen Young, the work began with promise.
Sato easily shape-shifted from the springy footwork of an innocent child to the more seductive undulations of adolescent love. But the burden of being a woman manipulated by so many men, as in the arresting and staccato sequence between Iphigenia, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, and Achilles, was a theme that would eventually grow old on the viewer. When Iphigenia finally makes what should be a somber peace with her fate, the trills of the woodwinds sounded too light and Sato moved from a series of partnered lifts with a carefree ease that undercut the gravity of everything that came before. Though the final image of her retreating into the background was quite stirring, the dance as a whole bounced around the extreme edges of emotion leaving nothing to ponder in between.
But when in Greece?
Prelude to Night, though not specifically related to a myth, told the story of a woman in transformation, passing through worlds. Danced by Marianna Tsartolia, the woman is institutionalized, ravaged by a series of men, and pushed around by all the other dancers like a rag doll. She even lacks oversight of her onstage costume changes, instigated by a nurse who dresses and undresses her. In the most haunting part of her journey, she is literally gobbled up by an ensemble in bikinis and grotesque masks, powerless to their taunting hip circles and devious partnering. When her inevitable redemption scene comes to pass, she is in good hands as three capable men sweep her around the stage in a tricky sequence of lifts, washing away the nightmares of her past. The most poignant image comes when Tsartolia is held aloft, hovering above the floor, her body an upside cross.
Yet another variation on the theme of damsel-in-distress-seeking-salvation, On Distant Shores…a redemption fantasy sought to tell a more redeeming story of Helen. In this stripped down retelling, no ships sail for Troy, and Helen passes through waves of emotion in a series of duets. Charis Haines shined as the woman of infamous beauty and once again, the men impressed with the dexterity of their partnering. But, the relentless reaching, recoiling, and the prescribed pained expressions that Sato foiled so earnestly with her multi-dimensional physicality in Iphigenia, solidified into pure melodrama in Prelude to Night and On Distant Shores. Despite Rioult’s efforts to elevate and possibly empower these women, he only served to highlight the misogyny of a society that left them little more than a lovely cross to bear.
After all the lamenting and manhandling, Bolero could not have been a more welcome finale. The abstraction of the dancers working as intricate parts of one machine was engaging and fun. The individual personalities of the dancers came into focus as they each took turns breaking away from the percussive movements of the group to extend their forms and stretch their limbs. Their joy in moving so rhythmically to Maurice Ravel’s famous score was palpable. It nearly made up for the overblown night by leaving the audience on solid, modern ground.
Though it is obvious Rioult is building on the Martha Graham tradition from whence he came, he is hewing so close to her dramatic line that his own extremely skilled dancers are overshadowed by anachronism.