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The Body at the Center

Christian Rizzo / ICI—CCN MONTPELLIER: d’après une histoire vraie —

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September 15th was the first of four nights of a ballet featuring eight male dancers accompanied solely by two drummers for a 70 minute performance.  Curiosity about how this melange of 16 bare feet and two piles of percussion instruments could entertain an audience for over an hour is what drew some of us to REDCAT. We were not disappointed after the house lights went down and were soon transfixed by what we saw and heard. When the lights came back up, the two-minute standing ovation for the performers was enthusiastic and well-deserved.

The choreographer, director and designer of the production is Christian Rizzo, a man with a truly eclectic background. Born in France fifty-one years ago, Rizzo formed a rock band in Toulouse as a teenager, switched to fashion, started his own line of clothing, studied fine arts in Nice, began to design theatre sets and only gradually segued into choreography. Today, although not well-known in the U.S., Rizzo is in demand all over Europe—staging opera and exhibitions, teaching at various institutions and running his own company of artists. Two years ago, in The New York Times, Rizzo explained his evolution from stage design, music, lighting and visual arts into the world of dance:  “Putting the body at the center of everything was my great revelation.”

What we saw at REDCAT, entitled d’apres une histoire vraie (“based on a true story”), had its premiere at the Festival d’Avignon in 2013. It was inspired by a memory that became an inspiration for Rizzo. Travelling in Istanbul in 2004, he was enthralled by a performance of a traditional folkloric war dance. Last year, in the Middle East Monitor, Rizzo described the powerful image that continued to haunt him:

“I kept this memory inside me, but I didn’t really know why. I wanted to start with the idea of this folk dance only danced by men; to see how the dance could be a place for joy, happiness and sensuality and also to put aside some of the stereotypes of men dancing together….Every time we perform in different countries, people think we’ve drawn on local culture, which shows just how universal it is. It’s about community, about joy; something we can all relate to and against the current political climate.”

Rizzo’s dance began as, one-by-one, eight men silently entered the low-lit stage and found separate spaces to sit on the floor. They were dressed casually, but not quite identically, in grey or black jeans and tee-shirts; some had long hair, some short, and their ages appeared to be mid-20’s to mid-40’s. Gradually, one man began a series of movements, on the floor and standing up, that were both athletic and aesthetic. We could have been watching an advanced Yoga class or the rehearsal of a Balanchine ballet. Clearly choreographed patterns became increasingly more complex as the eight men–whether on their backs or sides, kneeling or standing upright–melded into pairs, trios and quartets. Sounds of bare feet on the floor and the men’s breathing was initially all we heard.

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On the upper left side of the stage, barely visible in the shadows, was a riser; on it sat two side-by-side drum kits, each with a full complement of cymbals, drums and cowbells that any jazz or rock musician would have. A few minutes into the dance, two men took their seats behind the drums and quietly joined the performance. The rat-tat-tat of sticks on drum rims, subtle brushing of cymbals and a few pre-recorded, enhanced percussion effects were the dancers’ only accompaniment at first.

In the next hour, the sound rose and fell, increasing dramatically and sonically then tapering off, as the men on stage ran, jumped, locked arms, kicked feet, danced alongside one another, arms around waists, and formed ever-expanding, at times ecstatic combinations. The permutations resembled everything from simple, Greek-style folk dancing to Busby Berkeley or Rockette productions to children joyously creating new steps together in a school yard. Rizzo deftly drew us into a delirious experience, something the woman in the seat next to me described as “being in a happy trance”.

Although not referenced by Rizzo as an influence for this work, a centuries-old Sufi Muslim practice seems directly related. Adherents of this ancient rite–who spread love, humbly serve others and banish egos–are known as dervishes. While there are many paths a dervish might follow, chanting, playing drums and other physical exertions are considered sure ways to attain the highest religious ecstasy and connection to God. The term “whirling dervish” refers to the formal ceremony during which men in costume spin in continuous circles for dizzying lengths of time. This “dance” was not originally meant as entertainment but has become a tourist attraction in modern-day Turkey. What Rizzo saw in Istanbul years ago may have been inspired by whirling dervishes and their drummers.

The eight dancers at REDCAT hail from all parts of the planet: Paris, Jerusalem, Peru, Spain and elsewhere. They are Fabien Almakiewicz, Yair Birelli, Massimo Fusco, Miguel Garcia Llorens, Pep Garrigues, Kerem Gelebek, Filipe Lourenco and Roberto Martinez. Each has extensive credits with other companies (some for many years with Rizzo); all were superb in this exhausting, exhilarating ballet.

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The two drummers are also the composers of the music they played. Didier Ambact has been playing percussion for twenty-five years—for rock bands like Nine Inch Nails, in electronic and fusion groups and for Christian Rizzo for a decade. Bertrand Groussard (aka King G4) was conservatory-trained, an early exponent of electronica music and a member of various art collectives.

Lighting by Caty Olive seemed tenuous and unsure at first but improved as the performance continued. One memorable, dramatic effect was achieved when low spotlights on the left side of the stage lit the dancers individually and then en masse. Their cinematic shadows seemed to double the number of moving bodies.

Christian Rizzo has described d’apres une histoire vraie as “a community being made—and communities are often made by ejecting elements or casting aside differences. We are all of us facing the same problems–the loss of community, the increasing sense of isolation, the fear of losing each other. That’s what this dance is about”.

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