Christian Rizzo Brings Dance Into The 21st Century
Christian Rizzo is a nonconformist. Grizzled and low-key in an oversized, distressed denim jacket worn with cropped trackies and tennis socks, the charismatic French choreographer has a distinct style that complements his eccentric personality.
Born in Cannes in 1965, his formative years were spent surrounded by the countercultural and revolutionary changes of the 1970s. It was a time defined by a need for realism and escapism. Pie-in-the-sky thinking was laughed off as the utopian values of the Swinging Sixties fell by the wayside. Everything was punk and glitter, grit and glamour, and Rizzo was embracing the fantasy of individualism through dance even back then.
“They were fun and high-spirited decades that were full of energy,” he recalls, and music—music to which Rizzo spent his adolescence dancing in sticky-floored nightclubs. The genres didn’t matter, he says, and varied from rock and soul to disco and electro. His cousin was a ballerina, but he had never wanted to perform professionally—an unusual trait for a choreographer, but there’s not much that’s conventional about Rizzo.
His transition to choreography wasn’t straightforward. Rizzo’s professional life began in Toulouse, where he started a rock band and established his own clothing line. He later moved to Nice to study at Villa Arson, a prestigious research institution for contemporary art where he cut his teeth as a choreographer.
By 1996 he was presenting regular performances, installations and dance pieces, and has since brought more than 40 different productions to fruition around the world.
He has also taught art and contemporary dance in numerous schools, and in 2015 was appointed director of the International Choreographic Institute in Montpellier, where he is now based.
“When I started out, I didn’t have a lot of technical knowledge about dance,” he admits, and to this day he finds it “very strange” that people pay to watch his work. “When I presented my first piece, people asked, ‘What?’”—he slips into a pretentious, artsy voice—“‘What is this? This isn’t dance!’”
That debut performance more than two decades ago starred unworn dresses given life through light and sound effects. “Sometimes I feel like I have to fight for the dance world to become more forward-thinking.”
Our conversation is taking place at Freespace, West Kowloon’s newly opened centre for contemporary performance, shortly before it stages the Hong Kong debut of From A True Story, a 75-minute all-male folk dance Rizzo created in 2013 inspired by emotions stirred by a dance he experienced in Istanbul.
“It’s been a dream of mine to perform in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is bursting with movement,” he says of the city he first visited 20 years ago, pausing to admire the harbour from Freespace’s floor-to-ceiling windows. “There are the sounds of helicopters and boats, multiple languages and traffic.”
These are some of the elements that get Rizzo’s creative juices flowing. “What inspires my projects comes from external influences rather than something that’s within me,” he says, which brings him to the French jewellery and watch maison sponsoring his Hong Kong performance.
“Van Cleef & Arpels represents tradition but also vision, and this is what I try to accomplish through dance. It’s about being aware of what we call the present while paying tribute to the past and striving for the future.”
In From A True Story, which was staged as part of the Le French May Arts Festival, eight dancers and two live drummers blend folkloric gestures with contemporary movement. “Nobody could believe that I wanted to organise a piece with only male dancers,” Rizzo recalls. “Nobody liked the idea.”
Challenging gender stereotypes is just another example of how the choreographer goes against the norm. However, you’d be mistaken, he tells me, if you assume he’s not interested in preserving tradition. “Few people understand dance’s history and, as a result, it’s disappearing. As choreographers and performers, we are a living archive of this history.”