Dancing to the Continuing Relevance of the Trojan War

Iphigenia performance -- Rioult NY

Iphigenia accepts her fate in the RIOULT Dance NY performance. Photo by Sophia Negron

More than 3,400 years later, the Greek tales of the Trojan War continue to inspire artists and poets and assert their relevance for modern life. There’s a good reason why Syrian women recently staged productions of Euripides’ The Trojan Women in multiple refugee camps to bring attention to the lasting damage of war. 

Choreographer Pascal Rioult, however, had avoided the siren call of Greek mythology in his dances. A long-time student and associate of Martha Graham, who was known in part for staging innovative dance interpretations of myths, Rioult wanted to stay away from anything that would bring comparisons to his famous mentor. 

His reluctance is over. His company, RIOULT Dance NY, was at the American Dance Festival last week with three performances of “Women On The Edge…Unsung Heroines of the Trojan War,” a triptych that examines the consequences of war on women and others on the periphery of the conflict.

“In many ways, Greek mythology is close to me,” Rioult told an audience in the Nelson Music Room during a discussion of the performance with Peter Burian, an emeritus professor of Classical Studies at Duke. “This was something I loved during my schooling in France. It was always with me.”

“Pascal is doing what poets and artists have done for centuries,” Burian said. “That is, reinterpret these fabulous stories. … One interesting thing about Greek theater, is if you are going to do story over and over, you have to do differently.  That was true even back in ancient Greece.  The playwrights never told the same story twice. People talk of it as ritual drama, but it wasn’t ritual at all. It was interpretive.” 

The RIOULT performance focused on three stories of royal women who lost everything in the Trojan War: Iphigenia, the daughter sacrificed by King Agamemnon to bring in the winds the Greek fleet needed to sail to Troy; Helen, the wife whose kidnapping started the entire conflict; and Cassandra, the Trojan woman saddled with the power of prophecy but cursed that nobody would believe her. 

Pascal Rioult and Peter Burian -- The Trojan War discussion

Pascal Rioult and Peter Burian open up on Greek theater, the Trojan War and modern dance. Photo by Chris Hildreth/Duke Photography

There’s a darkness to these stories -- tales of careless men failing women, silencing them, nullifying their concerns and making them collateral damage. There’s a quality about the women, Rioult said, that attracted him to their stories.

“Iphigenia in the end steps forward to accept her own sacrifice,” he said. “She says ‘I understand.’ I am going to do this. She makes this gesture and behaves so much more heroically than male Greek ‘heroes’ around her.

“That is the origin of the work.  I thought: wouldn’t it be wonderful to do an entire evening about these women who sit on periphery of the action. How does this conflict affect the women?”

For Burian, the performance’s focus on the female “heroes” of the Trojan War both echoes contemporary concerns for women in conflict and underscores what he sees as a connection between Greek theater and the origins of Greek democracy.

“For me the great change in the study of Greek theater is the inclusion of women and thinking about women,” Burian said. “Ancient Greek society was not welcoming to women. They were not treated as full citizens. And yet, one of the most interesting thought experiments in Greek theater is what would it be like if women were in charge? The plays present a great variety of pictures of women acting in ways that women in the real Greek polis couldn’t.

“For anyone interested in the connection between Greek theater and democracy, I believe this presentation of women in the plays could happen only because of the democracy that lies beneath Greek theater. 

To translate the Greek plays into modern dance, Rioult gave special consideration to the use of costumes, music and representation of the traditional Greek chorus. But he also sought to underscore contemporary connections, he said. At one point in the performance, images of Syrian refugee women are projected onto a screen.

He said this realization led him to shape the triptych around “the madness of war.”

“Cassandra moved me the most because of her psychological burden of foreseeing catastrophe and not being able to prevent it. She knows the walls are going to fall, but nobody will believe her,” he said.

“Three thousand years later and nothing really has changed. Back then, the Greeks were calling the Trojans barbarians and the Trojans called the Greeks infidels. We keep repeating and repeating their mistakes.”

The panel was sponsored by the American Dance Festival and the Forum for Scholars & Publics