An Interview with Anthony Rizzi

Of the many interviews I’ve conducted, former Forsythe dancer Anthony (Tony) Rizzi is perhaps one of my favorites thus far. I was asked to interview him for the January/February 2013 publication of In Dance. Tony and I talked for a good half hour, resulting in over 3000 words after I transcribed the interview. As I was asked to put together an 1800 word count article, I had to cut large sections of the interview for the In Dance version, but decided I would share it in its entirety on Stance On Dance. This interview is long and meandering, but also funny, critical, and fascinating with unusually keen insight into the state of dance. Enjoy!

Tony Rizzi will be performing his work “An Attempt to Fail at Groundbreaking Theater with Pina Arcade Smith” on February 7-9 at Kunst-Stoff. More information available here.

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Emmaly Wiederholt: I sent you a couple of questions I came up with but it’s really up to you. It’s your interview, wherever you want to take it.

Tony Rizzi: I didn’t even read those questions.

EW: Oh, it’s okay! I can read them to you. My first question is: how would you characterize your artistic priorities right now? What are you working on, what excites you artistically?

TR: Umm gosh. Well, I want to say cooking. That’s my joke line.

Well, 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. I’m also a visual artist. I like mixing it all up. But at the moment I’m kind of in the whole trying to get reminders of messages of how to be good. I don’t know. That’s the Pina Bausch piece, the piece that I’m bringing to San Francisco. My last work was all about prostitution in dance and how that’s all re-happening again. I don’t know if you know but the birth of modern ballet, Nijinsky, you know, started with the whole Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo and all that, and at that point in ballet it was like no one was interested in dance. All the girls, ballerinas in the Paris Opera, would go to the finest hotels to sell themselves after a show. So prostitution was big and Nijinsky was a big prostitute, he was being passed around from one trick to the other and he finally met Diaghelev and they were like, hey let’s change the ballet world. And it’s actually kind of happening now too. I don’t know about the states but in Europe a lot of my students are supplementing by prostituting themselves. So it’s really kind of going back to that time. So my last performance was all about that subject matter.

But it really depends. It’s like what pops up in my brain that needs to be talked about at the moment. I’m not a conceptual artist. I think meeting Penny Arcade, the performance artist, seeing her 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 this performance half of me is Penny Arcade. The other half is Pina Bausch. Both people, I feel them really grab for compassion, for issues, although Pina is much more abstract and Penny is more direct commentary. I feel like I’m a mix of the two. And then I threw Jack Smith into the mix. Not because I knew Jack Smith, but I have been compared to him. Through Penny, 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. So I kind of think I’m a mix of these three people in a way.

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 that with a performance inside my apartment. I have a very beautiful big large old pre-war apartment and the whole room is polaroided, it’s all done with polaroids. I used to work with polaroids, making large collages. It was in a performance in my apartment last year, which was a lot of social commentary. I played Mae West and a woman played John Bobbit. And I’m trying to figure out how to do a new performance here that incorporates food, a very intimate show for like ten people. I tend to either work with the famous choreographers like William Forsythe and Brett Faubre and I do the big shows with Robert Wilson and play lots of people, or my own stuff I like to really reduce to the fact that I’ll just do it in my apartment for ten people. The show last year was great. We only did 8 shows and we made like $5,000. We had people pay what they wanted and people paid like $100, saying, “This was the best thing I’ve seen in years.”

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EW: My next question, well, you come from a ballet background, right?

TR: Boston Ballet School, yep.

EW: When in your career did you start transitioning to more theatricality, or were you always doing visual and theatrical stuff?

TR: I was always taking photographs as a kid. I wanted to be an actor. Then I saw Baryshnikov dance and suddenly I was like, I want to do that. I started very late, at 16. My teachers were like, maybe you should be a teacher. And then I got offered a job at Ballet Trockadero, or Frankfurt Ballet, and I chose Frankfurt Ballet. That first year we hardly danced at all. It was all very strange weird productions with theater, talking. I remember learning this big dance and suddenly speakers were in there screaming at each other and I just started laughing. You know, like, what the hell is this? So I think it was through my experience working here in Europe 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, was how do I get the thought across with just a movement? And then seeing Pina Bausch’s work I saw how it could be incorporated. You can make it richer. There is no rule. So I guess it was through that. I think it was really through seeing Pina Bausch’s work because I was in the work of Wiliam Forsythe so 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. Yeah, they hated us. It was so radical. And then slowly it flipped.

EW: Yeah it flipped!

TR: Yeah. I was just talking about that today, how those first ten years of the company we weren’t really famous and people were just joining because they believed in Billy, not because it was joining the cool company, you know? I’m not saying that after that period was bad, but those first ten years where we were really the misfit company was just amazing, a mind blowing experience. It was cool.

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EW: So I’m going to focus on ballet a little bit because I have a long history with ballet and I’m very interested in yours.

TR: Okay. How old are you by the way?

EW: I’m 26.

TR: Okay, I’m 47, so 20 years older.

EW: So, do you still take ballet class? How would you characterize your personal relationship with ballet right now?

TR: I still love it. I still love taking class when the teacher is good. I took class today and it was bad so I was really depressed. I was like, oh god. But 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. I never took class. We always made fun of modern class. We were such ballet snobs as students. I love still taking ballet class. And really, even though we improvised with Forsythe for years on deconstructing lines and shape and understanding that we’re drawing space suddenly my ballet got really good. So from doing all the weird stuff my approach towards ballet became this whole other thing. And that’s what I try get to my students. It’s too positional, the ballet world. It’s got a good function and 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 there 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 the dancers were great. But there was no real definition between their style or Forysthe’s style. There’s all these companies that mix everything, they say it’s hip-hop-yoga-ballet-jazz. And let’s put some talk in it too. So it’s a big mix now. I always tell my students that the more they learn… go take tap dancing it will make you richer and you’ll be a better tool for choreographers. And 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: Yeah, that’s true for a lot of artists over here too, more and more. So, along with that thought that dancers are expected to do so much today, with ballet then would you say it’s best used as a training tool, or…

TR: Yes. I’d say it’s more of a training tool. I mean, this idea of what ballet stands for, standing on your toes, it’s like why?

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EW: I’m very curious about where ballet finds its relevance in today’s world.

TR: Yeah, yeah, me too.

EW: So moving away from ballet a little bit. So I’m sure it differs from piece to piece but what is your general process when you build a piece? Do you have a signature way of working?

TR: Usually I have an idea. Like this Pina Bausch piece (I call it the Pina Bausch piece but it’s “An Attempt to Fail at Groundbreaking Theater”) I was in Rome and I met an old girlfriend who was a baby ballerina in Boston and she’s a nun now and I hung out with these nuns in Rome and I was blown away and I said, I need to make a piece about them. They’re so focused on love. They’re like punk rock girls, like forget Dolce and Gabana. 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 really from one point of view, or 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. It’s also a big subject matter of the show. The show is very much a lecture of the avant-garde in the past and present, and I think it’s very important for young artists to see the work.

EW: I will!

TR: It talks a lot about all that and this whole success and failure, this capitalistic idea of success, how it’s just destroyed the Bohemian art world. That’s a line from Penny Arcade. And I really push that and analyze that more through these three characters. So it’s constantly talking about how there’s nothing wrong with failure. Years ago Forsythe gave us an essay from some famous philosopher, it was called “Nothing Fails like Success” and it was very interesting. It had that subject matter in it.

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EW: Do you get commissioned by ballet companies to do works on them?

TR: I used to. I haven’t been asked to do a commission for a while. I’ve been really out of that loop. I tried to approach a few places but I think sometimes it’s just too weird. Munich Ballet had me do something but they knew they were hiring a weird piece, and they said they wanted something in a museum. Things like that. Another piece I did in Munich was with film. I used to film and dance together and that was also nice. Yeah I haven’t done so much. I pretty much do my own little things or working with other people. I’ve been enjoying being an actor for other people. I’m on tour with this show called “Drugs Kept Me Alive”.

EW: Do you usually work as a solo artist?

TR: No, though I’m usually always in my own piece. Woody Allen says it’s cheaper that way. In this last piece, the prostitute piece, I only did the opening monologue and the intermission monologue and the rest of it I guided from front. It was wonderful. I hadn’t done that in so long. It was hard for my dancers because I’m usually saying “yes, yes, yes” but this time I was saying “oh no, that actually doesn’t look good.” When I’m in the inside I always just go with gut feeling. So I do both, sometimes they’re solo pieces. My biggest piece was 8 people plus an extra 40 that came in at the end.

EW: So when you work with a dancer or collaborator, do you take their training into consideration or their personal charisma?

TR: Personal charisma. What kind of personality they are. Whether they’re creative. Being musical is 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. It’s like 10 minutes long. And he said he wanted me to do it. So I had fun going back to super ballet world. Not wiggly wiggly, but do it! I had a really good time. 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.

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EW: My last question for you is, in the larger art-dance-contemporary-theater world, what are you seeing that excites you, or you’re not so excited about? What larger trends are interesting to you?

TR: 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, okay we’re going to do a piece with rugs, so what can we do with a rug? So I find that. Interesting is the role of performance art and people going into states of being onstage. That was what was interesting in this Sidi Larbi piece. I liked the dancers and the sensations they were having, whatever that is. I find that’s an interesting new element that’s a performance art thing where you’re not rehearsing, you’re going into a state or you’re going into a concept. I find that’s nice to see. And I see tons of people copying the Forsythe stuff. Wayne McGregor I just saw 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.” These were exercises we did in 1985 and you can see on a DVD. The other thing I’ve found with Forsythe’s work that’s affected European 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.

EW: Do you think that’s because it’s the easiest to restage?

TR: Yeah, I think it’s easy to imitate. It’s also easier for a public to grab. 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. 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, the have to help me with costume, 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.

Photos Courtesy Anthony Rizzi