Pascal Rioult was a track and field star in his native France when a friend admired his ability at disco and other popular social dances and suggested that he consider studying modern dance. He thought that seemed slightly absurd, never dreaming that his life was about to change. After receiving a fellowship from the French Ministry of Culture in 1981 to study in the United States, he moved to New York. Several years later, he became the principal dancer of the Martha Graham Dance Company and was featured in two television specials.

In 1994, Rioult founded his own company, Rioult, and has since been compared with George Balanchine for his distinctive choreographic style. This week, Rioult makes its Washington debut in a powerful program featuring "Celestial Tides," danced to Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6; "Wien," danced to Ravel's "La Valse"; "Bolero," set to the composer's piece by the same name; and "On Distant Shores," danced to music by Aaron Jay Kernis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer.

"I always was an avid social dancer nonstop for hours and hours, but if you are an athlete on the level I was, you don't think of becoming a professional dancer," Rioult said. "My friend invited me to observe his class, and a half-hour later, I dropped everything and began studying.

"By the time the French government gave me the grant, I understood that this was another side of my life. Because my mother was a pianist, classical music has always been in my life. My love of aesthetics mixed with acting confirmed that dance is the perfect marriage of both."

If you go
Rioult Dance Company
» Where: George Mason University Center for the Arts, 4400 University Drive, Fairfax
» When: 8 p.m. Friday
» Info: $23 to $46; 888-945-2468;

Rioult will not forget the day he auditioned for Martha Graham and discovered how perfectly his extreme athletic ability expressed the great tragedies she enjoyed choreographing. As he worked with her, he was thankful that the Greek tragedies were engrained in his background so well that he could express their mature depth in his dancing. In time, he began to develop choreography under her supervision.

"She told us, 'You don't choose to become a choreographer, it chooses you,' " he said. "After the first couple of pieces I created, I knew that I was meant to do this. There is a moment when you realize that you are working from instinct, and the sky opens up. My first big piece, 'Harvest,' got good reviews, so after staying with Martha several years, I decided to go ahead on my own."

Sometimes Rioult's ideas come from the music. Other times, he first creates a dance. He has made a reputation of building a program around a composer, such as Ravel, whose work is represented in two of the dances he brings to George Mason University's Center for the Arts. He describes "Celestial Tides" as an energetic, happy and pure piece to enjoy, while "On Distant Shores" is very dramatic.

"My idea for it was inspired by the story of Helen of Troy," he said. "I commissioned the music, which is in three sections. It is pure classical dance, very technical, and the center section is more emotionally charged. I also commissioned an artist to come up with paintings that move when projected. They are gorgeous."

Rioult selects dancers who are the very best he can find. They must be very strong, have a ballet background and be technical physically. At the end of an audition, which lasts for several days, he asks them to come with an improvisation to see if they can set the stakes high. Most importantly, he must feel a strong connection with them. To this end, he maintains an in-house staff of lighting and costume designers with whom he is comfortable working.

"I'm excited about performing in the Washington area because I've been dying to get there and show those audiences what I can do," he said. "I'm in a particular place that is a wonderful mix of a strong modern dance background and a very classical European technical background."