Kanopy ‘entwines’ with Martha Graham-taught choreographer Pascal Rioult

Jay Rath, Contributing writer

Acclaimed choreographer Pascal Rioult is joining Madison’s Kanopy Dance for a Valentine’s concert of passion. Rioult: Hearts Entwined will feature three of his works and two of his dancers, in a program running Feb. 12 to Feb. 14. 

“They really are very sensual, sexy duets speaking about love in two different ways,” says Rioult, founder and artistic director of RIOULT Dance NY. “Even though my work is not romantic all the time, this definitely will be.”

“His choreography is beautiful, touching, dark, entertaining,” says Lisa Thurrell, Kanopy co-artistic director with Robert Cleary. “He is a force in New York City and France.”

Kanopy will perform Rioult’s dance Wien, set to Ravel’s La Valse. Two other duets will feature Rioult dancers Charis Haines and Jere Hunt.

“What the audience will get out of these duets is what my work is about, which is sensuality and musicality,” says Rioult. “That’s what I’m known for. And also, of course, very high level dancing.”

A native of France, Rioult came to America in 1981 to study dance. He eventually became a principal with the Martha Graham Dance Company; Graham created the Death Figure role in her ballet The Eye of the Goddess expressly for him. 

In 1984, Rioult’s first choreographed works premiered at New York’s cultural center 92nd Street Y. In 1989, while still with Graham, he choreographed Narayama and Harvest, which were danced by her company at City Center. He founded RIOULT Dance NY in 1994. His works have since been performed by many troupes in the United States and Europe.

Rioult says both of the duets programmed for Hearts Entwined should be considered highlights. The first, “Summer Wind,” is an excerpt from a larger piece called Views of the Fleeting World, set to Bach’s The Art of the Fugue. “This is full of the very, very exuberant, youth-energy of love,” he says, “all the wonderful fun and teasing kind of energy.”

“You just want to be them for a minute,” he adds, laughing. “They still make me smile.”

The other duet is an excerpt from Rioult’s On Distant Shores, featuring a commissioned score by Aaron Jay Kernis. “It is totally different,” says Rioult. “It’s about Helen of Troy. It’s kind of a romantic fantasy about: What if those men had not died on the Trojan shores for her sake, but had lived for her? What sort of relationship would she have had? She, in a sense, revives them. 

“It (shows) very subtle but different aspects of a relationship between a man and a woman. It’s very sensual but there is a sense of frantic energy and love in the part of the man and kind of an allusion to maternal instinct on the woman.”

Of his style of choreography, Rioult says, “It’s much more musical than Martha (Graham’s) ever was and not so angular. I use that (technique) from time to time, but my movement is much more fluid. And then there’s the influence of my European upbringing and my culture, which always seems to mix things up.”

He remains committed to Graham and American dance technique. “I believe in it firmly,” he says. “I took that essence as the principle and then I made up my own departure and version of it. I should also say it’s very physical. That’s also an American thing.”

Part of that physicality comes from his youth. “My mother is a musician and teacher,” says the former track and field star. “And so the love of music and the love of physical activity — the best marriage of those two is dance. Dance is physical, and I mean extremely physical.”

He notes that contemporary dance has tried to set itself apart from the Graham tradition, “which can be a little bit old fashioned. The principles of it — as old as they are — I still love today, but of course you have to take it somewhere else.”

Kanopy Dance’s co-artistic director Thurrell is a veteran of the Graham school as well and Rioult says he believes she’s trying to do much the same thing with her company as he is. “(Thurrell’s) doing a great job carrying that tradition. I’m so excited about that. I really admire what they’re doing and I’m very happy that she asked me to collaborate with her.”


Kanopy Dance will present Rioult: Hearts Entwined Feb. 12 to Feb. 14 at the Overture Center, 201 State St., Madison. Tickets are $29, $22 for students and $14 for children. To order and for showtimes, visit overturecenter.com or call 608-258-4141.

In addition, Pascal Rioult will conduct a master class for intermediate and advanced dancers at 11 a.m. on Feb. 13. Space is limited. Visit kanopydance.org for more details.