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Michele Rizzo: Cathartic Dancefloor

Words by
Jeppe Ugelvig

Artist and choreographer Michele Rizzo (Italian, b. 1984, lives and works in Amsterdam) will perform his most ambitious commission to date, HIGHER xtn. on the occasion of the exhibition “1999” in Milan at Spazio Maiocchi on 18 December.

There’s no doubt that club culture is in vogue in the contemporary art world: from Jeremy Deller’s 2018 ode to ‘90s UK rave culture Everybody in the Place (recently aired on BBC) to the touring Vitra Design Museum exhibition “Nightfever” on nightclub architecture, artists and institutions are taking an increasing interest in the hedonist spaces and subjects of dance music. The understanding of the nightclub as one of the last sites of freedom, resistance, collectivity and carnivalesque pleasure makes it ripe for critical exploration in a time when society’s other institutions—the street, the museum, the Internet—have increasingly fallen into the hands of corporate, or worse, neo-fascist, control.

At the forefront of this wave is Michele Rizzo, the Italian choreographer and artist based in Amsterdam. Influenced by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s writings on the flow, a state in which the subject loses a sense of self through complete immersion in the activity they are performing, Rizzo’s work investigates transcendent and synesthetic approaches to movement, often with a firm nod to music and club culture. In 2015, he premiered Higher, a durational performance where a group of dancers breaks in and out of trance-like collectivity to the sound of minimal dance music, physically citing increasingly obscure club dance styles such as jumpstyle and Chicago footwork that Rizzo studied on YouTube and in Dutch nightclubs (which, in contrast to Berlin’s minimal techno bouncing, still retains some of the erratic intensity of ‘90s hardcore). The score is produced in collaboration with noted composer and DJ Lorenzo Senni, whose emotional deconstruction of trance music aligns brilliantly with Rizzo’s investigation into bodily affect, catharsis, and self-expression on the dancefloor.

Since its theatrical premiere, Higher has toured festivals and museums across Europe, including the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin, and the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. This has given a new, exhibitionary aspect to Rizzo’s work, which is usually intended for the theatre—a context welcomed by the artist, whose work has at times been perceived as too introverted for the big stage. “My work has always been interpreted by the theatre as a provocation, as a challenge to the notion of theatre,” he says. “That’s not the intention. Rather, my work is simply about very internal states, bringing directionality from the outside to within.”

Rizzo further explores these modalities—of texture, speed, movement and mental states—in two other works that make up his choreographic trilogy: Spacewalk (2017), a group performance with an architectural set that goes deeper into the idea of virtual transcendence, and Deposition (2019), a solo work where Rizzo returns to the bodily experience—an inverted transcendence, so to speak, once again playing the audience’s perception of physical movement. (The piece features a hypnotic score by Berlin composer Billy Bultheel.) Although these works are stripped from the club aesthetic that distinguishes Higher, they speak to the same choreographic elements that define discotheque dancing: durationality, trance, intensity, solitude, togetherness and internalization, in constant negotiation with other bodies. “The museum has a different way of hosting the work, which I think is very interesting,” he says. “The experience of the museum is more individual. The audience is still a body, but historically the experience of the visitor is more solitary; that helps that aspect of the work to emerge.”

Image courtesy of the artist. Photo credit: Luca Ghedini.

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