Twenty years after introducing American audiences here to several French modern dance troupes in the 1983 program, the American Dance Festival included a French mini-festival in this year’s season. It opened with the work of Pascal Rioult, a Frenchman who has worked in the U.S. for most of his career. America seems to have rubbed off onto Rioult, if one can judge by comparison with Compagnie Maguy Marin and La Maison, the two other companies whose work was shown this year. Pascal Rioult Dance Theatre was in striking contrast to the others.

For one thing, the Rioult company (seen June 18) danced. La Maison (June 24) did some dancing, but there was almost none in the work presented by Maguy Marin (June 19). While the four pieces by Rioult certainly had their theatrical elements, they were first and foremost dances – not situations, and still less polemics.

Rioult’s first offering was “Veneziana,” set to Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite. Although it had some pleasing – fun – elements, overall I found it perversely awkward and even flaccid. It couldn’t seem to decide whether to be a narrative or a set of patterns, and choppily switched back and forth between the modes, each thwarting the other. Many of the movements were equally choppy. A beautiful sequence would begin – and then be interrupted. Feet were placed awkwardly, hands left flopping like chicken heads. It was a relief when the curtain came down.

After that introduction, I held out no high hope for the Firebird . But it was brilliant. Firebird, of course, is a staple of the ballet repertoire, and Robert Weiss has choreographed a version for the Carolina Ballet. The ballets generally involve fairly straightforward storytelling, following some version of the Russian folktale, and make use of the opportunity for colorful sets and gorgeous costumes. Rioult took a very different approach, far more metaphorical, that tapped into the dark vein in Stravinsky’s music. On a dim stage beset by dark mountains, grimly costumed dancers labor in captivity to brutal evil. Over them hovers a malevolent dark triangle, its piercing point moving ever closer to unarmored flesh. There is no ambivalence in the choreography here. Then Rioult takes a huge risk: his Firebird is a young girl, maybe seven years old, all dressed in white. This could so easily have been the worst cliché. But this child, Hannah Burnette, was born to dance, and dance she did, with the most astonishing skill and aplomb. Instead of wallowing in cliché, Rioult stripped cliché away to remind us of the sweet truth that remains the basis for a story like that of Firebird.

The program included two more dances. In “Black Diamond” the two dancers were lyrical and lovely, moving to Stravinsky’s “Duo Concertant.” Essentially, they give form to the music. They are weightless and fast, with amazing balance and extension. Their movements are mostly fluid but they strike many angular poses. Like the music, they are flexible, precise and powerful, and the dancers’ mirroring of each other’s movements effectively echoes Stravinsky’s structure.

The evening’s last work “Bolero,” set to Ravel’s music, was far more interesting than expected. All of the troupe’s eight dancers take the stage in silver unitards, and again Rioult has them bring out the underlying, rather than the surface quality of the music – which is blasting away at high volume. Moving incredibly fast and with great precision as the music races towards its rousing finish, the dancers show neither emotion nor pleasure. The silver costumes, the cool lighting and the dancers’ robotic movements emphasize the cold mechanical structure under the surface heat and passion of “Bolero.” Pascal Rioult’s intelligent choreography and trenchant re-interpretation of often-heard scores, along with the abilities of his dancers, made for a very satisfying evening. For more information about this company, see .

The following evening was torture. And, apparently, it was meant to be. The highly touted Compagnie Maguy Marin (Marin received the Scripps Award for Lifetime Achievement in Modern Dance a few days later in an ADF ceremony*) presented “Les Applaudissements ne se Mangent Pas” (“One Can’t Eat Applause”), an unnecessarily long polemic about power, subjugation, torture and the Disappeared in Latin America.

The back and sides of the stage were hung with long plastic strips in earth and mineral colors, forming a permeable barrier between what can be seen and known and what can be known but not seen. Eight “dancers” wore ordinary street clothes in colors keyed to the backdrop. Moving continuously around the stage and through the curtaining strips, the performers mimed the many permutations of suspicion, hiding, fear, dissembling, aggression, attack, submission, torture, pain, death, disappearance and resistance – again and again. Both the “choreography” (maybe better called by a non-dance term – perhaps “movement design”) and the execution of these moves were superb.

After five minutes of this, though, the point is perfectly clear: We here in the comfort zone may be bored with it, but these terrible things go on and on in real life. (Just in case we hadn’t gotten it, the movement was accompanied by dissonant noise punctuated with the sounds of gunfire.) After fifteen minutes, I was pretty much wishing all the characters would go ahead and kill each other off once and for all. After thirty minutes, I was thinking up ways to torture the perpetrator of this presentation. Most of the audience was checking its collective watch every few seconds. There was a stampede for the door when the piece finally ended after 75 minutes.

Had Marin limited the length of this piece to 15 or 20 minutes, it might have been brilliant, and people might have left the theater determined to do something to make the world better. As it was, this “art” was the worst sort of condescending, self-righteous, quasi-intellectual, whining pretentiousness. And – there was no dancing. For more information about this company, see [inactive 1/04] .

*Marin’s acceptance speech is reprinted at [inactive 10/04].

The following week, choreographer Nasser Martin-Gousset and the company La Maison presented another program consisting of a single long piece. This one was worth sitting through. “Bleeding Stone” was quite theatrical, but there was dancing, and some of it was wonderful. Besides that, it was laugh-out-loud funny, charming and silly and absurd. Anything that can successfully combine the music of the Rolling Stones with snatches and snippets of Brahms is almost bound to be absurd.

The stage is set with a long sofa, a chair, a coffee table, two red lamps and a stereo system. Behind all this hangs an enormous screen for projected video. A tall man in shorts and little white socks comes on and sprawls on the couch; a slow crawl begins on the screen: 1 9 6 5. The Rolling Stones croon “That’s How Strong My Love Is.” Dancers appear behind the screen in silhouette, and now the Stones belt out “Hitchhike.” The guy in socks is joined by a bleached blonde in platform sandals, a skinny tousled druggie and a swishing queen in white bathrobe, turban and shades (Martin-Gousset). They play out skits of shifting relationships and encroaching boredom, some of which are hilarious, and all of which are reinforced by the soundtrack and the video backdrop (open heart surgery; dreamy blue skies; famous film clips).

The tenor changes when a fifth dancer, a beautiful dissatisfied woman in red, takes the stage, dancing to “Parachute Woman.” She is discontent – she breaks it off – inserts a tape of Brahms instead. The others return, but their dynamic has been disturbed. The music changes several times and events get odder and odder. The word “heal” appears on the screen. The blonde returns, as Death in a black veil. She departs; Martin-Gousset returns bare-chested and dances sinuously, sensuously, pouring honey on himself and the floor. The Stones rasp out “Sweet Virginia.” Then, as was bound to happen, we get to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The blonde thwacks away at the floor with a wet rag and sings along like a demented angel.

Just when you think the work will never be anything but a magpie glitter of fragments, it coalesces with a joyous dance and the last song:

It’s a mystery, what are we here for?
I don’t really care
Give me the music, I want to move
Can you feel the magic?

The audience roared a resounding “Yes!”