Christian Rizzo’s “b.c, janvier 1545, fontainebleau” at the Kitchen

Photo by Marc Domage

Last night, I was at the Kitchen for French choreographer and polymath Christian Rizzo‘s b.c, janvier 1545, fontainebleau (through Saturday; tickets $15).

As the story goes (I interviewed Rizzo earlier this week; see here), several years ago, while choreographing for the Lyon Opera Ballet, Rizzo encountered dancer Julie Guibert, who left a huge impact on him. When, a couple years later, he was commissioned to make a work for the Montpellier Dance Festival, he immediately thought of Guibert, and b.c, janvier 1545, fontainebleau was born. A meditative hour-long dance piece set in stark black-and-white, it’s as twisted and fascinating a piece of choreography as I’ve seen in a long time.

The show opens with Rizzo–wearing a bunny mask, with heavy, beaded ropes, that recall nothing so much as some sort of Orthodox bishop, dangling from his belt–wandering patiently, arms folded behind his back, between the audience and the curtain. Once the audience is seated, Rizzo wanders back to the rigging and opens the curtains himself (his role in the piece is set operation) to reveal a massive white stage, peppered with flickering tea light candles and adorned with large black sculptural elements dangling from the ceiling. Upstage center, Guibert–dressed in black, with a black swimmer’s cap and silver-heeled stilettos–lies across a long table. In silence, she rises, and proceeds into a series of slow, contemplative, and occasionally contortionist movements, ending in tableaux during which Rizzo patiently collects the candles, first in ones and then in pairs, and arranges them on the table.

The first thing I have to say is that Guibert moves like pretty much no one I’ve ever seen. Her stage presence is stunning, and watching her do a full extension with her head on the floor is as fine a demonstration of what makes someone a truly accomplished dance artist as any you could ask. If you go, watch her shoulders throughout–they speak volumes. Rizzo, mask notwithstanding, really does exist as a non-presence in the work, a maestro and puppet master manipulating the space Guibert occupies alone.

Although part way through a pre-recorded score (by long-time Rizzo collaborator Gerome Nox) kicks in at nearly heart-stopping volume, the piece resolutely refuses to become over-excited or kinetic. In the interview, Rizzo stressed his fascination with ritual–if not the religious kind, then the quotidian sort we all go through without noticing, from tooth brushing to dish cleaning–and as a choreographer he’s fascinated with altering the rhythms or patterns of what’s otherwise accepted and subconscious. All of which is to say that most of the movement is completely abstract. Guibert’s costume is almost completely dehumanizing–in the diffuse light, even her face seems obscured. The only way she becomes human is through the movement itself, owing to the quality that Rizzo described as her physical “intelligence.” Pace Descartes, she moves, therefore she is.

One last fascinating take away from Rizzo’s work is the rather odd and tense way he related movement to image. Rizzo has been described as “non danse” before, a term coined by French critics in the Nineties to describe choreography that didn’t grant primacy to the dancers or their movement. A poor description, perhaps, but Rizzo was unable to offer anything better. He did stress, however, that–contrary to the impression that description might give–his work is not about images, but rather about the movement. What’s fascinating then is to see how he manipulates objects on the stage as he moves around Guibert. It’s hardly an original concept–granting movement itself primacy over dancers by moving non-human objects goes back at least to the Post-Modernists at Judson Church, and even further if we think in terms of performance art. Rizzo had a lot of fascinating things to say on the subject (including his explanation of the title, which bears only small relation to the work itself), but more on that in the interview.

The point is, the world Rizzo creates onstage can’t be done justice in pictures because there’s a huge amount of movement in it. Watching the piece last night, I was reminded–seemingly randomly, though the soundtrack may well have played a role–of the rock band My Bloody Valentine. In interviews, Kevin Shields, the band’s songwriter and soundsmith, talked about sound as data, and how he sought to overwhelm the listener with simply too much information to take in, in terms of the volume and tonal modulations that make My Bloody Valentine so distinctive. Rizzo works in a similar way, crafting a piece whose focus is constantly shifting between Guibert and himself, between live people and inanimate objects, and at the same time you’re receiving a barrage of sonic noise washing over an ever-shifting visual palette. In fact, the only remotely static moment on stage is the final tableau, with Guibert perched nymph-like on a box as the lights fade to black, only to have the sense of visual ephemera translated into a video projection against the back wall.

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