Combining It All: An Interview with Antony Rizzi

By Emmaly Wiederholt

January 1, 2013, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Dancer-actor-visual-artist extraordinaire Antony Rizzi is coming February 7-9 to KUNST-STOFF arts to perform An Attempt to Fail at Groundbreaking Theater with Pina Arcade Smith, his recent piece where he simultaneously plays choreographer Pina Bausch, performance artist Penny Arcade and filmmaker Jack Smith. American born, Rizzi worked with [William] Forsythe from 1985-2003 before branching off to make his own choreography. Still based in Frankfurt, Rizzi and I talked online recently, where I learned more about his artistic approach and his perspectives on dance.

Pictured: Tony Rizzi Photo by Thomas Brucher
Pictured: Tony Rizzi
Photo by Thomas Brucher

Emmaly Wiederholt: How would you characterize your artistic priorities right now?
Antony Rizzi: Umm gosh. Well, I want to say cooking. That’s my joke line.

I love to combine it all. I love to combine theater, dance, film and photographs. I like to mix all the things that I do. My last work was all about prostitution in dance and how that’s happening again. The birth of modern ballet, Nijinsky, started with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. All the ballerinas in the Paris Opera would go to the finest hotels to sell themselves after a show. Prostitution was big and Nijinsky was a prostitute, being passed around until he finally met Diaghilev and they said, “Hey let’s change the ballet world.” And it’s actually kind of happening again. I don’t know about the states but in Europe a lot of my students are supplementing their income by prostituting themselves.

It’s what pops up in my brain that needs to be talked about at the moment. Seeing Penny Arcade, the performance artist, perform when I was quite young at 27 in a piece called Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! made a big fan out of me. That’s why in An Attempt to Fail at Groundbreaking Theater half of me is Penny Arcade. The other half is Pina Bausch. I feel both of them really grab for compassion and for issues, although Pina is much more abstract and Penny is more direct commentary. And then I threw Jack Smith into the mix. Not because I knew Jack Smith, but I have been compared to him. Penny Arcade was good friends with him and took care of him when he was dying, so I’d heard her imitate his voice for years.

But to go back to your question, I’m always trying to communicate a certain message or reminder, always trying to remember what it is to be a human being. At the moment I’m trying to do a performance inside my apartment. I have a very beautiful, large, old, pre-war apartment and the whole room is covered with polaroids. It was for a performance in my apartment last year. I’m trying to figure out how to do a new performance here that incorporates food, a very intimate show for like ten people. The show last year was great. We only did 8 shows and we made $5000. We had people pay what they wanted and people paid $100, saying, “This was the best thing I’ve seen in years.”

EW: You come from a ballet background. When during your career did you find yourself delving into more theatrical and experimental dance/performance art? What was the transition like?
AR: I was always taking photographs as a kid. I wanted to be an actor. Then I saw Baryshnikov dance and suddenly I said, “I want to do that.” I started very late at 16. I got offered jobs at Les Ballets Trockadero or Frankfurt Ballet, and I chose Frankfurt Ballet. That first year we hardly danced at all. It was all very strange weird productions. I remember learning this piece where there was screaming and I just started laughing. You know, like, what the hell is this? So I think it was through my experience working with Forsythe and seeing the work of Pina Bausch which blew my mind as a twenty-year-old, seeing the combination of theater and dance. And for me that was always my problem with dance: how do I get the thought across with just a movement? Seeing Pina Bausch’s work I saw how it could be incorporated. In the work of Forsythe I just thought it was this weird thing. I had no idea what it looked like. I had no idea the power of it. Back then people hated it. Everybody was walking out and booing. They hated us. It was so radical. And then slowly it flipped. I was just talking about that today, how those first ten years of the company we weren’t really famous and people were joining because they believed in Billy, not because it was joining the cool company. I’m not saying that after that was bad, but those first ten years were an amazing, mind blowing experience.

EW: Do you still take ballet class? How would you characterize your personal relationship with ballet right now?
AR: I still love it. I still love taking class when the teacher is good. I took class today. I love teaching it and I love taking it. I think it’s also because it’s the only training I ever did. I became a modern dancer just from throwing myself around with Forsythe. We always made fun of modern class. We were such ballet snobs. And you know, after improvising with Forsythe for years on deconstructing lines and shape and understanding that we’re drawing space, suddenly my ballet got really good. From doing all the weird stuff my approach towards ballet became this whole other thing. And that’s what I try to get to my students. It’s too positional, the ballet world. I can see why a lot of people are afraid of it. When people take my class they say that, they say “I’m so afraid of ballet and you make it so approachable.” There’s so much great leg work that modern dancers don’t get, that articulation, which makes them richer. I just saw Sidi Larbi, he’s a choreographer from Belgium, and he was choreographer of the year. I saw his work and whatever, I didn’t like the work so much but the dancers were great. There was no real definition in their style. There are all these companies that mix everything; it’s hip-hop-yoga-ballet-jazz, and let’s put some talk in it too. It’s a big mix now. I always tell my students, go take anything. Take tap dancing. It will make you richer and you’ll be a better tool for choreographers. I don’t know what it’s like over there but here the dancers make up so much material. The director is more like an editor.

EW: What is your general process when you build a piece? Do you have a signature way of working?
AR: Usually I have an idea. Like this Pina Bausch piece, I was in Rome and I met an old girlfriend who was a baby ballerina in Boston. She’s a nun now and I hung out with these nuns in Rome and I was blown away. I said to myself, I need to make a piece about them. They’re so focused on love. I really got excited about their way of life and I wondered who else lives like that. I try to live like that. Pina Bausch lived like that. And from there it goes, and usually it goes quite quickly. It depends who I’m working with. That piece was made in 4 days. Snowman Sinking, the piece I do with my mother was made in a week. I have ideas in my brain; a certain subject matter is resonating in my head. And I’m taking pictures that matter too, even though I don’t realize it. And it all just starts to flow together. Usually it’s a point about something. I tend to be very critical of the world. I’ve always been critical. It used to drive my father crazy. I wanted to be a movie critic when I was a kid. And so I’m taking that criticism and using it as an instigating point. The Pina Bausch piece is very much a lecture on avant-garde of the past and present, and I think it’s very important for young artists to see the work. It talks about success and failure, this ca-pitalistic idea of success, how it’s just destroyed the Bohemian art world.

EW: When you work with a dancer or collaborator, do you take their training into consideration, or their personal charisma?
AR: Personal charisma, what kind of personality they are, whether they’re creative. Being musical is also important, it’s half the battle. I once did a performance with Forsythe called The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. We had some strong ballet dancers in the company and he made this killer ballet. And he said he wanted me to do it. So I had fun going back to super ballet world. And at dress rehearsal Billy Forsythe came up to me and said “Jesus Christ you’re so fucking musical! It looks like you’ve got technique.” And I thought to myself, I’m going to take that as a compliment.

EW: What trends do you see emerging in contemporary dance/theater/art that you are most excited about?
AR: I’ve seen a lot of pieces that just don’t have any content. They’ve got some sort of concept behind it but it looks too much to me like, “We’re going to do a piece with rugs, so what can we do with a rug?” Interesting is the role of performance art and people going into states of being onstage. I find that’s a new element. And I see tons of people copying the Forsythe stuff. I just saw Wayne McGregor do a lecture and I actually complained on his Facebook, “You know you could have given some comment you got this from Forsythe who got it from Laban.” The other thing I’ve found with Forsythe’s work that’s affected dance is a fluid extreme elastic movement. I’m getting so bored. I just want people to fall down once in a while. Or be uncoordinated. In America people don’t really know Forsythe so well. They just know him from the ballet. But that’s like 1/8 of what we did. I mean, let’s be honest, America’s five years behind. And that’s fine. It can catch up. It’s not like a race. But things have advanced a lot over here the way people perform with this whole thing of talking onstage. People have really developed that, and not just like “Oh I’m going to talk on stage.” It’s one of the lines in the show when I’m Penny Arcade and I say “I’m the godmother of performance art. I know what you’re thinking, a bunch of dancers that are going to start talking. I can feel your pain already.” This performance is really a play with dance. It’s not a dance piece. We just performed it in Munich and people were in shock. It’s very audience participatory. They have to do the lights, they have to help me with costumes, and they have to play Jack Smith for a while because I’ve had difficulty playing three roles at once so it’s very give and take. I made it in 4 days, I don’t have time for a lighting man, I’ll just call out cues to a stranger in the audience. It’s very makeshift.

Antony Rizzi’s, An Attempt to Fail at Groundbreaking Theater with Pina Arcade Smith will be presented at KUNST-STOFF arts, February 7-9.

This article appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of In Dance.

Emmaly Wiederholt is the founder and editor of Stance on Dance. She danced in the Bay Area for six years before pursuing her MA in Arts Journalism. She currently lives in Santa Fe, NM.