Unsung Heroines? Rioult Dance New York at the American Dance Festival

Even while looking forward to another interpretation of three interrelated Greek legends, I was irritated before the program began. Pascal Rioult has titled his trilogy (the final piece of which is an American Dance Festival commission) WOMEN ON THE EDGE…Unsung Heroines of the Trojan War. Iphigenia, Helen and Cassandra–heroines? I was hoping Rioult would show us how he thinks so, but alas, no.


“Iphigenia” with Catherine Cooch in the title role, by Pascal Rioult. Rioult Dance New York at ADF, 7/18/16. Photo: Grant Halverson.


In my opinion, no one comes off well in the story of Iphigenia at Aulis. Here is the Greek Agamemnon, hot to go to war with Troy and bring back his wife Clytemnestra’s sister Helen, who is wife to Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus. Helen has [been stolen by/been carried off by/been seduced by/eloped with/run off with] Paris of Troy and is living with him there. Agamemnon’s ships are arrayed in the harbor, but the wind won’t blow for them. Agamemnon decides that he must sacrifice his young daughter Iphigenia, recently betrothed to the handsome warrior Achilles but still a virgin, so that the winds of war will rise and carry his ships to Troy. Clytemnestra and Achilles make token efforts to protect the girl; after some begging and pleading on her part, she accepts her duty and goes willingly to sacrifice.

Even supposing this were not an absurd interpretation of her behavior (the girl had no choice–it appears that, like Anne Boleyn, she decided to be dignified about dying for a man’s desires), in what way does that make her a heroine? You could say that she, rather than Helen, if you must blame a woman, started the Trojan War (an event that still remains emblematic of the worst results of patriarchcally-approved mass testosterone poisoning).

Pascal Rioult’s choreography for his “Iphigenia” is in itself almost painfully literal, and–worse–it is accompanied by pedantic narration (voice by Kathleen Turner) and an unpleasing score (“Iphigenia” by Michael Torke). The dancers wear pure white costumes by Karen Young–the women’s recall Greek robes; the men are bare-chested and wear pants so heavily slashed they look more like bandages–and move in a strong set by Harry Feiner that evokes the harbor and the spars, but also the idea of an arena. There’s some good dancing in Rioult’s interesting style (lots of angles; a very unusual way of landing on a flat foot) especially by Catherine Cooch and Charis Haines as Iphigenia and Clytemnestra, but there is no real drama, let alone tragedy. The last image is of Iphigenia dancing backward out of view. We do not see her laid on the altar; everyone’s white clothing remains pristine. It’s bloodless. No hint of the great tragedy of war: it makes men consign their own children to Death.

And what about Helen? Daughter of Zeus and Leda, you’d think she’d have some capacity to act on her own. Was she “stolen” by Paris, or did she “run off” with him? Either way, can one blame her for 10 years of siege, countless deaths and the destruction of Troy? Always seemed to me that Paris was the one to blame, if it was anybody’s business but their own. (And there is the forever galling fact that all those men would not have gotten so het up if Helen had been an average looker or a poor but comely servant.) Again, I have to ask: in what way is Helen a heroine?

In one variant of Helen’s story, as told by Euripides, the gods divert her to Egypt and send a mirage made of clouds to Troy, thus allowing her to be later reunited with her husband Menelaus without having actually married Paris and then his brother. This is the version Rioult draws on for “On Distant Shores…a redemption fantasty.”


Charis Haines dancing Helen of Troy in Pascal Rioult’s “On Distant Shores…a redemption fantasy.” Rioult Dance New York at ADF, 7/18/16. Photo: Grant Halverson.


Although Charis Haines did some beautiful dancing as Helen, accompanied by four “Trojan War Heroes,” this section was rather murky. The backdrop was an unchanging view of clouds seen from above, which seemed like a waste of projection capabilities. The music, “On Distant Shores,” by Aaron J. Kernis, was danceable but rather programmatic. In the program notes, Rioult says that he had always felt “that Helen was wrongfully accused” and that he “wanted to redeem her.”  While I agree with the first sentiment, it did not appear that he redeemed her, if indeed she needs redeeming.

The final section, “Cassandra’s Curse,” which premiered last month in New York, is the most active, with some sizzling moments, and it conveys something of Cassandra’s tragedy. A prophetess no one would believe, (her gift and the curse of disbelief coming either from Apollo or from snakes), she was sister to Paris, and foretold all the terrible future that would stem from his actions with Helen. Richard Danielpour’s music, “Cassandra’s Curse,” is high-energy, frantic at times, and Harry Feiner’s set marvelously conveys Cassandra’s isolation. No matter how fiercely she cries and how ferociously she dances, Cassandra is kept separate from the people of Troy (the ensemble) by the rolling scrims that form screens and a box to keep her captive. Sara Elizbeth Seger gave her all, but the tragedy of her situation as Cassandra was muted by the return of the awful voice-over. If it had been poetic, or even in a story-telling mode, maybe the voice-over would have worked. As a pedantic device, it merely interrupted and distracted from the story. This one was particularly bad, because near the beginning the voice (Kathleen Turner) says something about Troy being in the Persian Empire and the 5th century BC. I don’t really know what point she was making, but as the Trojan War occurred several centuries before Troy’s location in Anatolia was subsumed into the the Persian Empire, a part of one’s attention was drawn away from the dancing by mentally worrying at that anomalous verbal bone.

And again I ask: in what way is Cassandra a heroine, sung or unsung?


Sara Elizabeth Seger in “Cassandra’s Curse.” Rioult Dance New York at the ADF, 7/18/16. Photo: Grant Halverson.


The program repeats in Reynolds Theater July 19 and 20, 8 pm.






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