The question still haunts French-born choreographer Pascal Rioult: What choices would he have made had he lived during Hitler's ascendancy and rule?
"Especially being from Europe," he says, "my question was always, 'If the circumstances were right, and I was taken into this swirl, what would I have done?' Do you participate, do you close your eyes?"
Satisfactory answers proving elusive, Rioult turned to his work for deeper understanding, which led him to create two related dances in 1991. His emerging eight-member New York troupe will perform both--"Wien" and "Te Deum"--plus an American premiere in its West Coast debut tonight at Cal State Long Beach.
Wien, German for Vienna, was the original title for Maurice Ravel's lush "La Valse." Rioult's piece explores "the rise of violence and intolerance [under Hitler], which I heard in the tragic whirling of that music," he said.
The work "could have been a bleak vision of any city splintered by conflicts," wrote the New York Times' Jack Anderson last year. In fact, while the former principal with the Martha Graham Dance Company doesn't equate the Los Angeles riots to the Holocaust, the local outburst reminded him that Nazism had no monopoly on extreme social strife.
"People who were taken in by [Hitler's] craziness were pretty much like you and me," he said. "So there's always a danger there."
"Te Deum" is a response to "Wien," "or at least a try," the contemporary dance maker said recently. "It's a piece I feel in a way I'll be working on my whole life."
Set to music by Arvo Part, "Te Deum," represents a search for "hope in this emptiness and madness we feel we're living in," Rioult said.
"It is centered around a man looking through a landscape inhabited by what I call lost souls in search of the eternal. So it's a spiritual quest."
University studies in philosophy and French literature fueled Rioult, 42, on that quest. The studies further helped him overcome his late start in dance. A champion hurdler in school, he was 24 before taking his first dance class.
But very soon after joining Graham's troupe in 1986, "I got roles to do because of my background," he said in a phone interview from Cal State Long Beach, where his company is in residence through next weekend. "Martha worked a lot with mythology and Greek tragedy, which I knew. It was home for me."
He was born in the Normandy city of Caen, discovered dance in Paris, then moved to New York in 1981 to pursue the field. He danced with Graham for eight years and created some of his early works for the troupe. His choreography, however, borrows only the "essence" of Graham technique, "created from the need to express emotions."
"My work is a lot more softer and rounded--which is a little [Jose] Limon influence--and there's a little more resiliency," he said.
Rioult's style (glimpsed by local audiences when he participated in Ballet Pacifica's 1994 choreographers' workshop) is more contemporary, too, he said. It incorporates abstract pedestrian gestures that "speak to the times, perhaps through a shake of the hand that may say 'Don't worry, everything will be all right' or 'I can't take this anymore.' "
Rioult, who christened his company when he left Graham's four years ago, said he never felt intimidated honing his craft while employed by America's doyenne of modern dance.
"When I started choreographing I had no idea it was something I would go on doing," he said. "But my first couple of works were fairly successful and then I was taken by it. As Martha used to say, you don't choose to be a choreographer, it seems to choose you and there's nothing you can do to resist it."
Graham, who died five years ago at 96, selected Rioult to dance the lead in her final work, "Eyes of the Goddess."
"I realize now," he said, "that she was fighting with death when she choreographed it. She never showed that, of course, or spoke of it, but she had a very, very difficult time. She'd go back and forth and change steps, you could see the struggle. And she never finished it, she dropped it and [instead] premiered 'Maple Leaf Rag,' a funny, light wonderful little piece."
Rioult felt compelled to temporarily go light after "Wien" and "Te Deum." "Petit Cantate Pour Bilboquet," set to a Bach cantata, means "Little Song for the Ball and Cup Game." The titular game challenges players to catch a ball in a cup, which is affixed to a hand-held paddle.
The only idea behind the piece is a comparison of baroque and contemporary times, said Rioult, who combined baroque dance with modern movement, put platinum-blond wigs on his troupe, and dressed them in long hoop skirts and formal suit coats.
"All the bowing and curtsies" of baroque dance and social life is similar to "all the attitude" and posturing of today's supermodels, he said. "What's interesting to me is the idea of attitude. I see the two periods somehow alike. It's all kind of a game."
* The Pascal Rioult Dance Theatre performs tonight at 8 at the Cal State Long Beach Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach. $10 to $15. Part of the CSU Summer Arts series. (310) 985-7000.