It’s all about teaching people of all ages about modern dance, an art form many might consider strange or aloof. Pascal Rioult will be here to say otherwise.
“We want people to be comfortable with modern dance,” he says. “It’s often an art form they’re uncomfortable with, because they don’t understand it. But it, like jazz, is an American art form. It was invented in America.”
Rioult is founder and director of the Rioult Dance Company of New York, which is touring Mississippi and Louisiana.
The company will make three local appearances in the next three weeks, beginning with a Sunday performance at the Columbia Theatre for the Performing Arts in Hammond.
That show will be followed by a series of talks, local appearances, classes and master classes at the Manship Theatre, culminating with a performance on Thursday. The company then will move to Lafayette for another series of classes and appearances, which will end with two performances on Nov. 19-20 at the James Devin Moncus Theatre in the Acadiana Center for the Arts.
“And audiences that want to see both shows in Baton Rouge and Lafayette will have an opportunity to see two different shows, because our programs will be different,” Rioult said.
He spoke from Oxford, Mississippi, where the company is conducting classes at the University of Mississippi.
“We are reaching out to people of all ages,” he said. “We did a ‘dance in the park’ event when we first came here, where we performed, then invited people to join us. It was fantastic. We taught them the moves, and they had a great time.”
The event also served another purpose. “The people who joined us were able to become familiar with modern dance through their own experience,” he said. “And now they know some of our dancers, so when they come to see the show, they not only will recognize the dances, they’ll see the dancers they met in the park.”
The outreach effort makes the art form more accessible, more personal. And Rioult plans to work with Baton Rouge audiences in the same way.
“We’ll be teaching master classes at the university, and we’ll teach some classes at the Dunham School,” he said. “We’ll also have a class onstage in the theater for anyone who is interested. This is for everyone.”
Rioult is a former Olympic athlete and student of modern dance icon Martha Graham. He founded Rioult Dance in 1994, and it has since become an established name in modern dance known for its presentation of sensual and articulate musical works.
The dance company presents an annual New York season, tours internationally and conducts extensive arts education.
The company is made up of 12 dancers, 10 of whom are featured on the tour, all performing pieces from the company’s repertoire choreographed by Rioult.
Rioult likes to compare his choreography to painting. Some dances are impressionistic, others are abstract and still others delve into realism in the way they follow a narrative.
But the education outreach is most important to Rioult.
“When we go into schools, we talk to students about dance, how dancers train and how we create a dance through choreography,” he said. “Then we invite some of the students to join us onstage. We ask for volunteers, but many times we have to ask the teachers to choose, because all of the students are holding up their hands by that time.”
Once onstage, these students enter a new world. Some of them may even decide to stick with the art.
“That’s the great thing about it,” Rioult said. “You never know who might be the next dancers in the audience. This might be the first time they’ve encountered dance, and they want to learn more.”
Rioult tells the story of a company dancer who once was a skier. The skier decided to try out a dance class and stuck with it.
“This is wonderful when it happens,” he says. “And it might happen in Louisiana.”
This won’t be Rioult’s first visit to the Bayou State. A tour took him through Louisiana when he first started dancing, and he presented a lecture at the LSU Museum of Art in September as part of the museum’s programming for its “LeRoy Neiman: Action” exhibit.
The Rioult Dance Company’s tour is part of an initiative where theaters and presenters join together to bring major performing arts events to their areas.
“That way, they can all have a chance to present a major company to their communities,” Rioult said. “And we’re excited about coming to Louisiana. Being French, I’m especially excited, because of the French and Cajun culture. It’s going to be a great experience for all of us.”