Christian Rizzo Discusses “b.c, janvier 1545, fontainebleau”

Photo by Marc Domage.

“I remember that we were doing the rehearsal for the piece I was doing for the Lyon Opera Ballet,” choreographer Christian Rizzo told me, chuckling as he recalled one of the first times he met dancer Julie Guibert, in 2004, “and I was really, at this moment, I was happy because it was the first time I was invited to an institution like that, so I was going very little by little, and I was saying to some people, just walk, stop, go on the floor, very quick. And I remember that each time she was doing something–Julie–just walking, hopping, just sitting on the floor, I had the feeling each time she was doing something, it was the right thing, it had the right movement. Everything was right. And I remember one time, she was asking to me, ‘But at this moment I’m just walking, what do I have to do?’ and I’m saying, ‘Just keep going!'”

This was last week, and Rizzo and I were sitting in the third floor business office of the Kitchen, the \ Chelsea performance space and gallery, where Rizzo’s second work to make it to the U.S., b.c, janvier 1545, fontainebleau, was going up for three performances in New York City before heading for Seattle, where it opens On the Boards‘ 2010-11 season this Thursday.

With b.c, janvier 1545, fontainebleau, Rizzo–who has, in addition to dancing and choreographing, been a rock musician, fashion designer, visual artist, and now filmmaker and opera director–breaks new creative ground. Originally commissioned by the Montpellier Dance Festival and debuted in 2007, b.c, was the first solo Rizzo set for another dancer, the aforementioned Guibert, who has previously performed in work by everyone from William Forsythe to Russell Maliphant.

“I’m more impressed sometimes with people when they start to talk, and you see the knowledge and the intelligence and the language and the reference,” Rizzo continued on about Guibert. “And that was for me the first time I’d seen the intelligence everywhere,” he began plucking the muscle in his arm, “not connected with the language, but with the flesh. The understanding of everything around her.”

The dance Rizzo created for her is a fascinating work that fits somewhere uncomfortably between dance and performance art installation. The curtains are drawn as the audience enters, past Rizzo himself (who, somewhat oddly, does appear in someone else’s solo, albeit as the maestro working the stage magic), wearing somewhat old-fashioned clothes, long beaded tassels hanging from his belt, and, finally, and most incongruously, wearing a bunny mask.

Once the audience is seated, Rizzo draws the curtain to reveal a a white box stage, dimly lit and bathed in the flickering light of some dozen or so tea light candles peppered around the stage. Large sculptural pieces hang from the rigging, mostly tubes of black cloth, knotted up and stuffed so that they hang like great drops of viscous liquid trapped in time mid-drip. Upstage center, Guibert lies on a table. She’s dressed all in black, a tight black skull cap covering her shaved head. About the only thing flashy about her at all are her shoes: black pumps with glittering silver stiletto heels.

In silence, she dismounts from the table and proceeds into a series of increasingly complex but largely formal phrases, ending in frozen tableaux during which Rizzo begins slowly shifting the stage elements and re-creating the space, collecting the candles, arranging them on the table, and then moving the table around the stage, and so on.

Rizzo, who began his career as a dancer in the latter part of the 1980s, became associated with what French critics dubbed “non-danse” during the 1990s, a form of dance which–as best as I’ve been able to gather–was supposedly defined by the choreographers’ refusal to grant primacy to the movement of the dancer over other elements of the piece, such as lighting, set, video, or even the movement of inanimate objects. An interesting concept, but not one that, on its own, was particularly original by the 1990s (most of those ideas can at least be located with the progenitors of Post-Modern dance in the 1960s). Rizzo, also, looks somewhat askance at the term, particularly since it was a label applied by others to a group of artists without regard for why they were doing what they were doing. Instead, he cast the concept in entirely historical terms.

“All the choreographers at this point,” he said of the 1990s, “were dancers, which was not the case the Eighties. [Back then] a lot of them came here [to NYC] to take class at the Cunningham studio, but they didn’t have this experience being dancers in different companies. So when we started to dance, we also have this idea of what we crossed to be a dancer. And also the political question of what it is to be a performer at this moment, and the relationship to the choreographer. So it’s perhaps true that we stopped dancing, and moved the brain a bit more.”

“Before doing movement, I have to know where it comes from,” he continued. “We want to do something, we have to restart from almost nothing. So what is it to sit, to walk, to fall, to take an object? How do I look on stage? All this becomes a sort of vocabulary or language. But first we had to discover the language that we wanted to use. So perhaps people say it’s non-danse…I can understand that. But I think the problem with that was not that we [chose not to] focus on dance, but rather [we chose to focus] on the choreography.”

Indeed, Rizzo’s work, b.c, included, is developed more by accretion of details, some of which will be the movement of the dancer or dancers, and some of which will be the movement of other distinct elements within the space, than it is through a standard choreographic vocabulary in which the choreographer sets movement on a dancer. The associations that go into creating the work may appear tangential, random, or fragile (as in the name of Rizzo’s company, L’Association fragile). Take, for instance, the bunny mask Rizzo patiently performs in for the hour-long duration of the piece: he bought it on a completely unrelated whim in Taipei, and then, when he needed some way to disappear from the space during performance, he settled on it because it reminded him in a web of references to everything from Beuys to Donnie Darko.

“For me, when I start to work, I feel like I’m diving,” he told me, “like I’m opening my bags, my library, and I’m grabbing things I’ve been collecting for a long time. It’s like this slippery thing, that finds its right time.”

His choreographic movement style, at least in this piece, is often slow and tightly focused. “Ritualistic” is a word that gets tossed around a lot when talking about Rizzo, but it risks being misleading. Rizzo isn’t playing with religiosity for its own sake, but rather the opposite, coming at the experience of religiosity through the visual and physical media they employ and which he understands.

“One time I was in Japan, and I saw a ceremony about the planting of rice,” he recalled. “And there is a kind of dance, a sacred, holy dance. They were doing something simple, and I was saying…I don’t know. There was something. I didn’t understand the ritual itself, but I understood the timing, and the space started to be totally transformed all around by this little movement.”

“What I like in the ritual connected with movement,” he explained, “is that it’s an approach to some movement we are always doing, and we forget. Like, every morning I am getting up and doing that and that, blah blah blah.” He started fiddling with a stack of magazine on the table in front of us. “But if I start to give a little bit more intention to it, and to look at it and to take the time to do it”–he carefully placed an envelope inside a copy of Art Forum and smoothly folded the journal shut, almost like a priest replacing a bookmark in his Bible at the end of a sermon–“it starts to change everything.”

In the case of b.c, the ritual that the work started to develop from was as simple as Guibert’s warm-up routine.

“When I started working with her, just doing the warm-up, I was really looking at her and how she was doing the warm-up,” Rizzo explained. “What she was doing, and from that, I decided for the first time to show a dance, to show the moves to her. And that started to be the material, but there were no forms–forms, of course, because I was showing her something, but there was no mode. But very quickly I saw that in the movement, I had a feeling she had a kind of machine inside,that would start and just keep going.

“And it reminded of this…automat?” He pondered the word for a moment, until I offered a suggestion.

“Automaton! And I remembered I read a book some years ago about–we say in German wunderkammer, in France it’s cabinet de curiosit√©s. It’s the pre-figuration of the museum,” he continued. “And I was reading a book about that, and there was this story about Benvenuto Cellini. Francois Premier asked him to make two sculptures for Fontainebleau, and finally he just did one. But he knew he had to do two, but he produced just one, but to be sure everybody will be very impressed, he started to put lights on the sculpture and to move the sculpture for the presentation. In fact, I think there was a musician put around. And I like a lot this moment, because in this period, in 1545, already there is kind of hybrid performance, with the sculpture, put in movement, with sound, with light.”

He paused after explaining the meaning of the title, then added: “It’s not connected with the piece directly, but it’s in parallel.”

Welcome to world of Christian Rizzo, of remarkable intuitive leaps and bounds. In fact, one of the things that fascinated him most about Cellini’s cabinet de curiosit√© is the fact that it problematizes that entire Post-Modernist/Non-Danse timeline I laid out above.

“I’m always using different things to create art,” Rizzo said, “and a lot of time when we are talking about the history of dance, and the hybrid thing, we’re always coming back from Black Mountain, Rauschenberg, blah blah blah, in the United States the Fifties…Sixties,” he trailed off before waving off the detail. “And I was a little bit fettered to always have this reference in the history of art or dance that starts with this moment. And if we are involved in history and thinking about that, we can deeper and deeper, and I found this moment and said, ‘Okay! We can start this hybrid thing of representation…there is this moment before!’ And I thought with this title we can maybe talk about that some.” He grinned puckishly.

But for all that history and counter-history, theory and all, Rizzo’s work operates on a sort of gut level. You don’t need to know a great deal about the history of dance to get how Guibert is always shifting in and out of focus on the stage, how Rizzo’s long-time collaborator and lighting design Caty Olive washes out her face with lighting so that she looks like “a Flemish painting” (to quote Rizzo), or how Gerome Nox’s (Rizzo’s other longtime collaborator) techno/rock score, which kicks in at heart attack inducing volume about a third of the way through, stands in contrast to the movement, the music throbbing, fearsome, urgent, while Guibert remains tightly focused, precise, meditative. Rizzo’s work may be visually stunning (really, it is), but it’s not imagistic, it’s experiential, down to the lighting itself (remember, the stage is lit most of the time with flickering candles, causing the massive white space to constantly shift and shimmer–the lighting, in other words, is every bit as rich, complex, and intense as the score).

“I’m not producing images,” Rizzo told me. “I think the images which appear onstage came from the movement. I don’t start saying, ‘I’m going to create images.’ The images appear from the writing of the piece. And I’m not only creating images because I’m always showing how this image is created on stage, and how it’s disappearing on stage. And this is important for me because it’s also connected to the idea of engagement, that beyond these images people can see, in what I’m doing, that there could be not more than what they see. Because I show everything. Even if there is a mystery that I will never reveal, because this mystery, it’s the audience’s. It belongs to them, not to me.”

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