Mario Rizzo in conversation with Aparna Halpé

Mario Rizzo, famous for his eccentric innovative approach to tango, takes the stage as the Duende in Arrabal, directed by Sergio Trujillo, with music by Gustavo Santaolalla and Bajofondo, and choreography by Julio Zurita with co-choreography by Trujillo. Revolutionizing the Tango Show, Arrabal brings contemporary dance and music to traditional forms, and tells an unflinching story about the horrors that swept through Argentina during the 1970s. An integral part of the genre-bending idiom of this show, Mario Rizzo brings mystery, mastery, and the tremendous joy of radical improvisation that challenges the givens of dance.

In this interview, Mario shares his experiences in dance and life.

AH: Tell us a bit about your background.

MR: I started dancing as a young boy, going to dance hip hop and breakdance to night clubs. I never had a formal education in dance, but I always liked to understand movement, studying on my own how those dances were so effective to the eye.

At the same time, I always did all kinds of extreme sports: kite-surfing, road cycling, rock-climbing, mountain biking… Later, I started to dance the popular dances like rock and salsa, and it was only in the last fifteen years that I went into Tango.

But everything has always been driven by curiosity, by the desire to know.

AH: You are known for pushing the boundaries of dance genres: You bring hip hop, breakdance and modern dance to tango. You redefined the idea that it “takes two to tango” by choreographing and improvising tango based pieces that you perform solo. Can you tell us a bit about the way you cross boundaries of dance?

MR: I never saw it as something that was not natural, I never thought that to combine styles was something not allowed. Also, because of my particular way of moving, I always liked to take things that looked interesting and just put them in my dance. So to me it looks like the styles fused by themselves, or that the so called boundaries are things that someone put there, not something real, just a construction.

Maybe this is because I never went to dance schools where you learn the dances separately. My concept of improvisation is taking advantage of all the different resources you have and using all of them. In this sense, Tango gave me a lot of interesting elements which, in the end, made the basis of this style that I created. To do that, being present and very perceptive is the fundamental thing.

AH: Your story seems to be intimately tied to place and history, but when we think of Buenos Aires, we think of traditional tango dancers and music from the Golden Age of tango despite the fact that the music and dance have evolved. Is there a connection between the different kinds of dance that you do, and new cultural and artistic idioms in Buenos Aires?

MR: I think there isn’t. First, because nobody else does what I do, it is a very personal style where I achieve performances with dynamics and resources that I take from Tango. On the other hand, I think that there is not much space for new expression in Tango, the world of new tango and electronic tango is not very big, at least in Buenos Aires.

AH: You frequently collaborate with groups like Narcotango or Bajofondo. Can you tell us about this process and how they contribute to your artistic vision?

MR: Bajofondo is the first band I started to work with. Gustavo Santaolalla called me to perform in his first video “Perfume” that was filmed in milonga La Catedral. After that, I went out touring with them. Then it was Narcotango, Tanghetto and Otros Aires. I have worked with all of them. These four bands are the main electro-tango bands in Argentina. For me it is always a great pleasure when they call me, because it was with them that I started to bring life to this style that I dance, and it is because they  liked what I did, and called me again and again, that I went evolving and growing with them. The kind of music they do, which is more related to my musical taste, is an important part that inspires me to compose and improvise on the base of Tango.

AH: Arrabal, which saw its World Premier in Toronto on February 4th 2014, seems to emerge out of a particular sense of history and story that takes us through the experience of the “Disappeared” in Argentina. What is your response to this moment in Argentina’s history?

MR: Those years I was very young, just a kid, I didn’t understand what was happening. At 18 years old, I had to do the obligatory military service (which today doesn’t exist anymore). There I started to listen to the stories about what had happened. I think that today we all know that what was happening in Argentina was not isolated from the world politics of those years that people were killed not only for political reasons but also for economical ones. That’s why today, in Argentina, the coup is called the civic-militar coup, to indicate that there was non-military participation, that there were economic interests.

I feel a lot of pleasure in contributing, participating and telling this part of our history.

AH: In Arrabal, you play the character of the Duende. What is a Duende?

MR: Well, Duende is the Spanish word for maybe elf or goblin. It is a magical creature, not a human one.

AH: The Duende is unlike any other character in this show. What, in your words, is the significance of this character here? What is it contributing to the story?

MR: The Duende is a magical character who travels through time. He is present in every moment of the play and he is the one that ties the story together. The Duende is the only one who knows all the story, true to his personality, he is that old “buddy” of Rodolfo, the radical who becomes one of the desaparecidos and his friend El Puma, and later he is the one who takes Arrabal, Rodolfo’s daughter, through the various stages of her adventure to seek her father. The Duende makes the story happen!

In a show where the choreography draws very clearly from the dance vocabulary of tango, the Duende seems to weave in and out of the dancers, playing tricks on the eye, moving in completely unexpected ways (as, for example, when your head seems to dislocate itself from your body). How much of this movement is improvised?

Well, the magic tricks are part of the choreography, they need to be very precise to be effective. The same happens with my displacements on stage and my interactions with other dancers. But every other moment that I dance alone, is an improvisation.

AH: Can you share with us a “favourite” performance moment from your life?

MR: Many years ago, I shared a show with Bajofondo. It was at the Opera Theater in Buenos Aires. This day was the National Day of Tango, so usually there are lots of shows and parties in the streets. So after the show, the band went out to Corrientes street to play their music in front of the Obelisco, a monument which is the symbol of Buenos Aires. All the dancers, we went out to the street, to dance and be part of that show with the band.

AH: If you were to offer a word of advice to a young dancer, what would you say?

MR: I think that dancing has to be pleasurable enough so that it doesn’t feel like a job. So I would say that this is important to remember, that the dance has to be delightful, that it has to be effortless, so that the body and mind never separate. There must be a sensation of wellbeing.