Pascal Rioult once danced with Martha Graham, who thrust her heart to the heavens while tilting her pelvis to the Earth. In his new work The Great Mass, Rioult revisits this human dilemma: the fact that we walk with our heads in the sky and our toes in the mud. Graham mapped this divide on the body, but Rioult unhinges the two tendencies, using a narrative demonstration with a very different resolution.
The show opens suddenly with full light, full sound, and full movement. Dancers, dressed in frothy confections of crème and white tulle, are bathed in stunning light as they leap and turn, their legs long and straight. They stretch a white silk scrim across the stage, draping themselves as they strike the classical postures favored by French Academic painters.
That they are angels is not perfectly clear until Mozart’s jubilant tones darken, along with the lights, and they fall from grace. Then, they form a different tableau, undoubtedly informed by Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa: a pyramidal pile of bodies, climbing each other to reach the top. Hands grasp at the heavens, then are pulled back into the heap by competing, climbing bodies.
If we had begun to tire of exaltation, we’re grateful for this grist. Stripped of the tulle and nearly nude in swampy green light, the dancers are no longer light or linear. They are creatures, formed of clay, with rounded ropey muscles and prehistoric posture. Standing, they are struck down, one by one; they collapse and twitch, slowly evolving again to upright postures. For a time, two of the women help—catching the collapsing figures, restoring their strength. But the fix is temporary, and they cannot keep up; soon, every body has fallen again.
Rioult thus illustrates our heavenly and earthly tendencies in the first act. In the second, he offers a solution; it is the same one Tolstoy chose for the quandary in Anna Karenina. The dancers wear an unsubtle compromise between their two costumes (bodices sans tulle) and cavort with wide grins, twirling, pairing off, kissing. They have sacrificed their dour intellect for a physical pleasure neither sacramental nor base. They are the happy peasants Anna Karenina’s Levin finally joins in the fields, swinging their scythes and sweating gloriously in the sun.
But the pitfalls of Classicism that stilted Gericault and Tolstoy alike—the mirthless self-seriousness, the stifling gravitas, the unproblematized fetishization of the “simple” peasant—dull the edge of Rioult’s equally momentous feature. Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor demands ambitious choreography, but Rioult’s illustrations feel pompous and rigid. Even at their most exalted state, the dancers seem to be posturing. And while I constantly demand that dance delve into the human condition, I find Rioult’s tripartite offering rather unsophisticated. If only it were so easy to turn the mud to buzzing green fields, and to silence the chattering of the mind!