When a choreographer introduces himself by trashing a Bach cantata, it's a little hard to take seriously his spiritual pretensions later.
Yet that's what Pascal Rioult expected us to do Friday when he brought his New York-based company to the West Coast for the first time. The three-part program in the Carpenter Performing Arts Center was part of the Cal State University Summer Arts Festival in Long Beach.
Rioult must be the only person ever to have detected social and sexual games in Bach's Cantata No. 147 ("Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben": Heart and voice and deed and life must give witness to Christ), which he excerpted for his "Petite Cantate Pour Bilboquet," a group piece for Andrew Boyle, Kathy Buccellato, Alyssa Dodson, Gregory Nuber, Leslie Myers and Trebien Pollard.
Maybe the flashy sex was the women's attempt to lure the men away from their stupid solitary cup-and-ball games. But when we see a woman bumping and grinding in a way that Demi Moore could use in "Striptease," we know we've kissed Bach goodbye. "Heart and voice and deed . . . " indeed.
Rioult was dead serious, however, about the spiritual quest presented in "Te Deum" (set to Arvo Part's score), the only work in which this former and powerful Graham principal danced.
A blue-suited Rioult is a wanderer set off from the others (Naoko Katakami, joining the previous dancers) and observing or interacting with them in unclear but portentous, or pretentious, ways.
He seems to raise them from the dead. They rejoice and struggle, undergo crucifixion but attain beatitude (we know they're spirits because the women strip to body suits and the men to jockey briefs), only to fall into the earthly struggle yet again. His quest continues.
Unfortunately, the choreographer emerges as the only real character, the others serving merely as foils, though technically strong ones. Like "Petite Cantate," "Te Deum" is driven more by dramatic than movement concepts.
Midway between these two was "Wien," set to Ravel's "La Valse." Rioult took the composer's single trajectory of the evolution of the waltz from vague beginnings to utter chaos and chopped it into little episodes of herd panic and cruelty. This was Rioult's most effective choreography of the evening, looking tight, coherent and directed. And least indebted to any predecessors.